Wrinch’s Cyclols

Dorothy Wrinch holding a model of a cylcol, 1938. (Associated Press photograph)

Dorothy Wrinch holding a model of a cylcol, 1938. (Associated Press photograph)

[Part 2 of 4]

The late 1920s were, overall, a good time for Dorothy Wrinch. By 1929 she had published forty-two papers on mathematics, physics, and the philosophy of science. She was a rising star, among the most educated women in the United Kingdom, the first woman to receive a Doctorate of Science from Oxford. Additionally, and most importantly for her, her daughter Pamela had been born in 1928; Wrinch loved Pam more than anybody else in the world.

The decade ended on a bad note though, as Wrinch’s husband, John William Nicholson, was institutionalized in 1930, the result of a mental breakdown brought about by his persistent alcoholism. The couple separated at that time, though Dorothy was not legally granted a divorce until 1938. This put Wrinch in an even more awkward social position than had already been the case: she was now a single, professional, unsupported, and unaccompanied mother in the very conservative world of British academia. Wrinch left Oxford shortly after the separation and the same year published a book, The Retreat from Parenthood, written under the pseudonym of Jean Ayling.

The book discussed the problems that women face, especially those women trying to focus on both their careers and their children simultaneously. The book also prescribed remedies for these problems in the forms of radical and utopian revampings of labor laws, housing design, and child care. Controversially, she also proposed the creation of a Child Rearing Services, envisioned as a government-run program where career-minded parents could effectively leave their children with a professionally trained surrogate family for up to months at a time. The Retreat from Parenthood likewise strongly advocated for the usage of eugenics to improve Britain’s gene pool. While support for eugenics was a fairly common position at the time, stances of this sort have since become extremely taboo in light of atrocities committed by the Nazis under the banner of racial purification.

Starting in late 1930, Wrinch actively sought to broaden her research horizons. She received numerous fellowships, and spent the years 1931-1934 studying in Vienna, Paris, London, Prague, Leiden, and Berlin, all the while visiting various laboratories and universities. This was a chaotic time in Europe, and upheavals wracked the continent, seeing the rise of Nazi Germany and support of fascist movements in numerous other countries. Wrinch was not overly concerned by these turns of events, and while staying in Vienna in 1931, wrote of her optimism that the upheavals marked a “straight road to a final breakup of the present system and where we will then find a new system which is neither Fascism nor Bolshevismus???”

Beginning in 1931, Wrinch began to think about how she could apply her mathematical knowledge to the biological sciences, specifically regarding the functions of chromosomes and the structure of proteins. In the summer of 1932, she helped found the Theoretical Biology Club, which argued that mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and philosophy could explain everything in life. And in 1934 Wrinch published her first paper on proteins, an article in Nature titled “Chromosome behavior in terms of protein patterns.” The Rockefeller Foundation was impressed by her work and, in 1935, awarded her a five-year research fellowship to support her efforts in applying mathematics to biology. Wrinch came to the US that same year to begin the fellowship.

The year 1936 would forever change Wrinch’s life and her legacy; it was the year that she first proposed her theory on the structure of proteins. She called her hypothetical structures “cyclols” and presented the idea to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1937. Wrinch believed that proteins were formed into a sort of large hollow cage, made up of small hexagonal sheets of amino acids – the cyclols. This hypothesis made news – an article written at the time by the Associated Press labeled her “Woman Einstein” – and quickly garnered her a certain measure of celebrity, in which she reveled.  Energized, Wrinch took a tour of the US in 1937, and used this trip to spread information about her ideas. Unfortunately Wrinch, in the words of Pnina Abir-am

mistook her American reception, marred by curiosity of her persona as an attractive female theoretician, for scientific confidence in her model.

Even though her hypothesis did generate scientific interest, she greatly overestimated the extent to which it was supported within the community. She loved being in the spotlight, developed an inflated ego and began likewise exaggerating the importance of her hypothesis. Most egregiously, she stopped referring to her idea as a hypothesis and began referring to it as “a proven theory with predictive power.” This stance served to quickly upset many scientists who could see that the evidence did not support her claims and worked to alienate her from many of her friends in the British and American scientific communities. Even those who had helped her with the work distanced themselves at this time. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who would receive the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her research on vitamin B12, later said in an interview

[J.D. Bernal and I] were friends of hers, and had helped to develop her theories, but we did not believe in them, and that was our trouble.

Wrinch’s theory had catapulted her into both the spotlight and the crosshairs of the scientific community. But the end of the 1930s would prove to be a trial by fire of her ideas, and the attack would be led by another up and coming star of the scientific community: Linus Pauling.

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