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History

Sir John Randall

The Centre is named after Sir John Randall, Wheatstone Professor of Physics at King’s who set up and became first Director of the Medical Research Council Biophysics Research Unit. Randall had earlier developed the cavity magnetron in collaboration with Harry Boot while at Birmingham University, which vastly improved radar and was key to winning the Second World War. 

During his time as Director, experimental work was carried out by Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, Maurice Wilkins, Alex Stokes and Herbert Wilson which helped determine the structure of DNA. 

 

Photograph 51

Photograph 51 is the name given to the X-ray diffraction image of DNA taken by Raymond Gosling and Rosalind Franklin in 1952. Using a moistened sample of DNA drawn into a fibre, and an X-ray camera filled with hydrogen to reduce background scattering, they obtained a series of diffraction patterns; Photograph 51 provided the clearest indication of a helical structure.

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This photograph and other observations made by Franklin enabled James Watson and Francis Crick to build a model of the double-helical structure of DNA, for which they won a Nobel Prize in 1962 together with Maurice Wilkins.

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First detailed model of DNA built by Maurice Wilkins in June 1953

Jean Hanson

Working alongside Franklin and Wilkins, in the Biophysics Unit in the 1950s, was Jean Hanson. Hanson undertook biophysical studies of muscle fibres, and together with Hugh Huxley in Cambridge, discovered and characterised the sliding filament mechanism of muscle contraction. Hanson succeeded Randall as Director of the Biophysics Unit, and in 1967 became King’s College London’s first female Fellow of the Royal Society. 

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The Centre in the 21st century

X-ray diffraction studies, including work on muscle biophysics, continue at The Randall Centre, which now hosts other state-of-the-art imaging facilities allowing researchers to carry out cutting-edge science, including the Microscopy Innovation Centre, the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility and the Nikon Imaging Centre. 

Notable alumni

Michael Chapman is Professor of Structural Biology at the School of Medicine, Oregon Health & Science University, USA, who completed a B.Sc. at the Randall Centre in 1982.

Of his time at King’s, Professor Chapman commented: "King’s offered an opportunity to learn alongside some of the best researchers in the UK, solving the problems of the day. They were excited. I wanted a career as fulfilling. They, I think, could see a breadth beyond the classroom, took the time to engage students like me and helped us towards the next steps of our careers."

Werner Kühlbrandt is the Director of the Department of Structural Biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics. He spent one year at King's as a third-year undergraduate, as a year-out student from his chemistry degree programme at the Free University Berlin, Germany. During his time at King’s, he carried out two B.Sc. projects, one in Biophysics on the X-ray structure of a nucleotide, and the other in Biochemistry on rabbit reticulocyte ribosomes.

Of his time at the Randall Centre, Professor Kühlbrandt said:"Apart from the B.Sc. projects themselves, it was the courses, practicals and lectures, especially at the Biophysics Department, that left an indelible impression. I will never forget the lecture course by Maurice Wilkins (a real-life Nobel Laureate, something we did not have in Berlin at the time) on macromolecular assemblies. Macromolecular assemblies are still at the centre of my scientific interest, and I often think of Wilkins' lectures in the context of our recently funded Cluster of Excellence on this very subject here in Frankfurt, of which I am now a joint director. I even look back at my lecture notes occasionally in preparation for my own lectures. So, it had a profound influence on my choice of the scientific field in an early and most formative part of my career as a scientist."

Michael Levitt is Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University. He studied as an undergraduate physics student at the Randall Centre, graduating in 1967. Professor Levitt won a Nobel Prize in 2013 for successfully developing methods that combined quantum and classical mechanics to calculate the courses of chemical reactions using computers.

Professor Levitt said: "I treasure my three years at King’s. It allowed me to mix with people from all over the world in a way that was a revelation at age 17. King’s exposed me to caring teachers in small classes and set me up for my career in computational biology. The location in the nicest ‘heart’ of London made coming in each day a pleasurable adventure."

Robert McKenna is a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Florida. He received his PhD in 1989 for structural studies of nucleic acid targeted anti-cancer drug design, working in the Randall Centre.

Of his time at King’s, Professor McKenna commented: "The research training that I undertook at King’s also provided me with ‘real in the lab research experiences’ that allowed me to realize that this was what I wanted to do as a career - it both prepared me for graduate training and allowed me to develop as a scientist."

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