Dorothy Wrinch: The Early Years

Dorothy Wrinch, 1940. (Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Archives photo)

Dorothy Wrinch, 1940. (Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Archives photo)

[Part 1 of 4]

Dorothy Maud Wrinch was a mathematician and biochemical theorist who, like many famous scientists, was an extremely complex individual. She became most well-known for her incorrect hypothesis on the structure of proteins and the vicious battle over that hypothesis that ensued between her and Linus Pauling. To a degree, Wrinch’s fame faded along with her incorrect theory, but her story is highly intriguing and we aim to explore it in detail over the next four posts.

(For much more on the life of Wrinch see the biography I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science, by Marjorie Senechal, Oxford University Press: 2012.)

Dorothy Wrinch was born in Argentina on September 12, 1894, the daughter of Hugh Edward Hart Wrinch and Ada Minnie Souter. Her parents were English citizens, at the time living in Rosario, Argentina, where Hugh was working for a British firm that employed him as a mechanical engineer. Once the project in Rosario was completed, the Wrinch family returned to London and Hugh found a job at a waterworks in the London suburbs, at which point Dorothy began attending the nearby Surbiton High School.

Hugh loved mathematics and succeeded in fostering a similar sensibility in Dorothy. In 1913 she received an internship to Girton College, a women’s college at Cambridge University. While there, she began to study math and philosophy, and in her first year was introduced to the famous and controversial philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian and social critic, Bertrand Russell (who would later become a close friend of Pauling’s). In her sophomore year, she began to study mathematical logic under the direction of Russell and quickly became enamored with him. She excelled in her studies, earning numerous awards and honors as the highest ranked woman in her class, and ultimately graduated with extremely high marks.

In 1918 Wrinch began teaching algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and solid geometry to honors students at University College, London. By then she had become deeply infatuated with Russell. She spent huge amounts of free time with him and his social circle, and absorbed many feminist and socialist beliefs from the group. Russell was arrested in 1918 for his active opposition to World War I; specifically, for delivering a speech where he encouraged the United States to ignore Britain and remain neutral. While he was in prison, Wrinch visited him regularly, wrote him numerous letters and often brought him books. In one of her letters to him, she described herself as his disciple, and talked of how proud she was to be an intimate friend of his.

This intimacy abruptly ended in 1919 when Russell began a romantic relationship with Dora Black, a famous feminist, socialist, and proponent of free love. Wrinch felt humiliated, and many of her writings from that time period revolve around issues of trust and betrayal. Wrinch was a self-described manic depressive, and took Russell’s actions very personally and quite badly.

Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling, 1953.

Nonetheless, Wrinch continued teaching at University College, and while doing so she earned a Master of Science degree in 1920, and returned to Girton College with a research fellowship in 1921. She rounded off her upper education and earned a Doctorate of Science in 1922. She was prolific, writing over a dozen papers about the philosophy of science.

The year 1922 was important for Wrinch in more ways than one: in addition to obtaining a doctorate, she also was married to John William Nicholson, the director of studies in physics and math at Oxford. The documentary record suggests that Wrinch and Nicholson met and became engaged rather quickly.

Wrinch also moved to Oxford in 1922 and became a part-time tutor and lecturer in mathematics at Lady Margaret Hall, a women’s college at Oxford. Once established, she branched out, lecturing at Oxford’s five women’s colleges on a per-term basis. Despite her track record of success, she encountered difficulties at Oxford, as its math and science community was tightly bound and very traditional. In this environment, Wrinch found many factors going against her: she was a married woman who also focused on her career; though married she retained her maiden name; she came from a modest social background; she was a feminist and very progressive socially; and she was new to Oxford.

Wrinch’s situation improved when she received an appointment as full-time mathematics lecturer for three years, making her the first woman to obtain such a position at Oxford. Her position also meant that male students would attend her lectures which was almost unheard of – female lecturers generally lectured to exclusively female audiences.

Her life was changed forever in 1928 with the birth of her daughter Pamela. Pam truly was the single greatest happiness and love of Wrinch’s life, as is instantly apparent by reading letters where Pam is described. Unfailiingly, Wrinch uses nothing but the most glowing of terms of endearment to describe her daughter.

As the 1920s drew to a close, Wrinch found herself a new mother, a scientific pioneer and a social radical. As she looked ahead, she charted a path that would make herself stand out even more: in an age where most British women would focus on career or marriage and motherhood, Wrinch decided that she would do all three.

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