Pauling v. Wrinch

“Report on the work of Dr. Dorothy Wrinch.” Written by Linus Pauling and submitted to the Rockefeller Institute. March 31, 1938.

[Part 3 of 4]

Dorothy Wrinch’s 1937 American tour brought her, and her highly controversial cyclol hypothesis, into the public consciousness. She attracted a lot of attention, but mistook that attention for firm support. Thus buoyed, she began making outsized claims as to the importance of her theory and, more importantly, false claims that it had already been scientifically proven. Wrinch’s rhetoric caused many of her friends and colleagues to distance themselves from her and her ideas. And when Pauling ultimately agreed to meet with Wrinch in Ithaca, New York, the gloves came off: Pauling slammed her ideas as plainly ridiculous, more fancy than fact.

The critical reaction to Wrinch’s ideas soon built into an onslaught. When she returned to the U.K., a group of British x-ray crystallographers argued that her suggestions were false. While Wrinch claimed that x-ray crystallography proved her theory, these scientists pointed out that, to the contrary, crystallographic results actively disproved her cyclols.

Stateside, Linus Pauling and Carl Niemann officially got in on the act with their publication of “The Structure of Proteins” in the July 1939 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. In it, the authors declared that Wrinch’s cyclol cage was so thermodynamically unstable that it couldn’t even be produced in a lab intentionally, let alone be found in nature. From the article:

[We] draw the rigorous conclusion that the cyclol structure cannot be of primary importance for proteins; if it occurs at all…not more than about three percent of the amino acid residues could possess this configuration. [emphasis theirs]

Wrinch, who was looking for work in the U.S., was forced to respond to Pauling’s article with one of her own. In it she publicly questioned his competency and stated that “opponents of the cyclol hypothesis have felt compelled to fall back upon arguments which are specious (due to errors in logic), and upon experiments which are irrelevant…or incompetent to decide the issue.” (Although it wouldn’t be known until 1952, the last part of her accusation was correct – Pauling’s hypothesis was also partially inaccurate.) In an effort to keep the peace, JACS refused to publish her rebuttal until Pauling had been given a chance to review it. Once done, Pauling and Niemann wrote another response to Wrinch’s piece – one equally acidic as Wrinch’s – rebutting her response point-by-point, just as “The Structure of Proteins” had done to cyclol theory.

Their battle, played out in the pages of newspapers and among the referees of major scientific journals, was defined by vitriol for it duration. Wrinch would attack Pauling, even going after his earlier theories on chemical bond resonance; Pauling would respond, calling Wrinch’s theories unworthy of serious scientific debate. At one point, 13-year old Pam, Dorothy’s daughter, wrote a letter to Pauling, which suggested

Your attacks on my mother have been made rather too frequently. If you both think each other is wrong, it is best to prove it instead of writing disagreeable things about each other in papers. I think it would be best to have it out and see which one of you is really right.

As time passed, evidence continued to grow that Wrinch’s cylol theory was wrong. Nonetheless, she continued to defend the work with vigor. In her 1987 book on women in science, historian Pnina Abir-am wrote that Wrinch developed a “lifelong obsessive defense of her theory and refusal to follow the shifting scientific frontier.” Additionally, her counterattacks on Pauling were full of shaky logic and bad science, which reduced her credibility far more than it reduced his.

Wrinch gathered little support in the scientific community by going after Pauling, by then known to many as a major scientific figure. Frustrated, her ego again got the best of her, and she accused her colleagues of being “cowards” who were too scared of Pauling to see the truth of her theories. This strategy bore little fruit and the remainder of her support had largely vanished by the end of 1939.  By 1941 Pauling had emerged victorious and Wrinch was largely ostracized from the scientific community.

An uncommonly vitriolic letter from Pauling to David Harker concerning his role in the Wrinch affair. July 6, 1940.

Victory aside, Pauling did not cloak himself in glory with his actions. In the estimation of Pauling biographer Thomas Hager, the saga managed to “illuminate less appealing sides of Pauling’s character,” his strong-arm tactics “a demonstration of his new power.” Clearly a rising star within the scientific world, Pauling’s

prestige and acclaim brought out negative factors in his personality that became more evident as his power grew: a tendency toward self-righteousness, a desire to control situations and frame debates, and a willingness to silence those with aberrant ideas.


The aftermath of the drama found Wrinch in a severely compromised position. For starters, the Rockefeller Foundation terminated Wrinch’s fellowship, rendering her without funding as a result of her having failed to find more solid support for the cyclol theory in the five years allocated to her.

Wrinch spent the years 1939–1941 searching for jobs in the US and Canada. She lamented to her close friend, Otto Charles Glaser: “I am notoriously poor at institutions about people.” Glaser was a frequent correspondent and a big supporter of her work. Finally, in 1941, Glaser engineered a deal for Wrinch and she was offered a position as a joint visiting research professor at Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges.

Not long after she had moved to her new position in western Massachusetts, a mutual friend approached Wrinch and told her that Glaser was wildly in love with her. Wrinch was caught completely off guard by this news and was even more surprised when, shortly afterward, Glaser proposed to her. Wrinch asked for time to think about it before answering; she was still a bit nervous, seeing as how her first marriage had been so unhappy and ended poorly.

As she deliberated, Wrinch drew up a table of pros and cons on the topic of marrying Glaser, using terms including “net losses” and “net gains” in her contemplation. She asked Pam what she thought and her daughter told her to be careful, since her first marriage had been so awful. But on the same token, Pam thought, Glaser was a good man and Dorothy was clearly close to him. Ultimately Wrinch and Glaser were married on August 20, 1941, in the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The wedding was a private affair, but still highly photographed and publicized. The couple permanently settled down in Massachusetts. As always, Dorothy was dedicated to maintaining her career, marriage, and her motherhood.

As published in the New York Times, August 21, 1941.

As published in the New York Times, August 21, 1941.

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