Artists Portraits

Icosahedral structure of virus revealed 1959

Poliomyelitis virus model by sculptor John Ernest.
Photograph by Adrian Flowers

In November 1959 Adrian Flowers was asked by Sir Aaron Klug to photograph the model constructed by sculptor John Ernest. Although research into the spherical nature of viruses had already been carried out by Francis Crick and James Watson, in the mid-1950’s, using X-Ray photography, the icosahedral structure of the Poliomyelitis virus was first identified by John Finch (1930-2017) and Sir Aaron Klug (1926-2018). In appearance, the icosahedral form of the polio virus is similar to the geodesic domes developed and popularised by Buckminster Fuller during that same period. In 1948, J. Bernel, head of the Department of Physics at Birkbeck College, set up the Biomolecular Research Laboratory, at 21 Torrington Square, where Rosalind Franklin led a small group of researchers. After joining Franklin’s team as assistant and student, as part of his doctoral research Finch studied the three-dimensional structure of viruses using microscopic photography. In 1958, Franklin died prematurely, and Aaron Klug, who had also joined the team, took over her work and the supervision of her students, Finch and Ken Holmes, who both graduated the following year. In spite of concerns of staff at Birkbeck College, Klug and Finch began researching the polio virus. Samples of this virus had been brought into England, from Berkeley University in the US, on a regular airline flight—albeit in crystalline form. Mounted within fused quartz glass so as not to infect people, the tiny spherical viruses were housed at the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, from where they were brought to the Royal Institution, where Finch photographed them using high intensity X-ray cameras. The resulting images revealed the icosahedral structure of the tiny spheres.

This pioneering research, by Franklin, Klug and Finch, enabled large-scale models of both TMV and polio viruses to be constructed by sculptor John Ernest (1922-1994), to help in publicising this breakthrough in medical science. Born in Philadelphia, Ernest was an abstract sculptor who had settled in England. Studying at St. Martin’s School of Art, he was influenced by Victor Pasmore, and became part of the constructivist group that included Anthony Hill and Kenneth and Mary Martin. Fascinated by mathematics and interested in new materials, he used polystyrene to make the poliomyelitis models. At the request of Aaron Klug, prior to their being transported to Brussels, where they were to be displayed in the International Science Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair, the models were photographed, in the hallway of Birkbeck College, by Adrian Flowers.

Photographs of the virus models built by Ernest were also taken by John Finch himself, and these can be seen at

John Ernest picture with his Poliomyelitis virus model. Photograph by Adrian Flowers

Text: Peter Murray

Editor: Francesca Flowers

All images subject to copyright.

Adrian Flowers Archive ©

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