Wrinch’s Legacy

Dorothy Wrinch. Image courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

[Part 4 of 4]

After her marriage to Otto C. Glaser in late August 1941, Dorothy Wrinch found herself in a happy, stable space and her work blossomed. She spent the 1940s researching the ways in which scientists could use mathematics to interpret x-ray crystallographic data and she wrote prolifically, eventually authoring 192 publications over the course of her career. In addition, she continued teaching at Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges, where she was popular with her students and found her institutional status rising over time.

However, one detail that did not change was her attitude towards cyclols. She continued to insist that her model of protein structures was the correct one and was buoyed when, in the early 1950s, it became apparent that Linus Pauling and J.D. Bernal had also been off with their hypotheses. Both also admitted that they had missed the boat regarding the importance of the double helix and other issues relating to DNA. For her part, Wrinch insisted that “any day now” her cyclol model would be vindicated as the key to the secret of life.

In the midst of all this, Otto Glaser sadly died of nephritis – a kidney inflammation that also befell Pauling – on February 8, 1951. Mourning the loss of her husband of ten years, Wrinch moved into faculty housing at Smith College and eventually resumed her correspondence with Eric H. Neville, an old friend from the late 1930s. Neville’s wife had died during the 1940s and, have been reacquainted, Neville asked Wrinch to marry him. She refused, reasoning that she’d already been married twice and that was enough for her.

The year 1954 proved to be one of partial triumph when cyclols were discovered to exist in nature – specifically in ergot alkaloids. Ergots are parasitic fungi that are used as a starting base for numerous pharmaceuticals. Upon hearing the news, Wrinch declared that she had been correct all along, and that this revelation proved it. As she wrote to Marjorie Senechal, a student of hers who later wrote a biography of Wrinch

First they said my structure couldn’t exist. Then when it was found in nature they said it couldn’t be synthesized in a laboratory. Then when it was synthesized, they said it wasn’t important anyway.

In this, she was overstating her position. While Wrinch had indeed been correct that hexagonal cyclols do exist in nature, much of the remainder her hypothesis had been wrong, including the large “hollow-cage structure” that she claimed was built by cyclols. Regardless, Wrinch redoubled her efforts and in 1960 and 1965 wrote two books that were “meant to be the culmination of her [work].” The scientific community largely disregarded these books, treating them as continuing defenses of an outdated idea.

Wrinch retired in 1971 and moved to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where she remained close with her daughter. In building her career, Pam had become rather notable in her own right. She had earned a Ph. D in international relations from Yale in 1954, one of the first women to do so. She later married a Cambridge publisher and became a fairly well-known lecturer on political science. Tragically, Pam was killed in a fire in late 1975. Wrinch, who was already weakened by advancing age, was completely heartbroken by the loss of her daughter. She died ten weeks later on February 11, 1976, aged 81.

Suffice it to say that the legacy of Dorothy Wrinch is a complicated one. Most would agree that Wrinch was an interesting, unusual, controversial, and polarizing figure in twentieth century science. She made numerous contributions to her field and overcame immense hurdles along the way, but the importance of her story is often buried behind the charged feelings surrounding her incorrect cyclols hypotheses.

To those with a lay interest in the history of science, she is not especially well-known. With the exception of Marjorie Senechal’s 2012 biography, I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science, Wrinch is only infrequently mentioned in books, generally works on early biology or Linus Pauling or texts focusing on women scientists. It is clear, though, that she made an impact on her contemporaries, both positive and negative.

On the plus side, one notes commentary such as that issued in 1980 by Carolyn Cohen, professor of biology at Brandeis University, who wrote.

Dorothy Wrinch’s life centered on [the vital importance of proteins] and she influenced many, including Joseph Needham in England and, in America, Ross Harrison, the great embryologist at Yale, and Irving Langmuir, the physical chemist. I believe that her influence has been vastly underestimated.

On the other end of the spectrum lies biochemist Charles Tanford, who called Wrinch’s “despised” cyclol theory

the most forgettable of all the fruits of the 1930s’ harvest, not really worth more than a footnote…a theory built on nothing, no training, no relevant skills.

More examples from both camps are available to those who look. But perhaps Nobel Laureate Dorothy Hodgkin – a friend of both Wrinch and Pauling – pegged the essence of Wrinch’s story best when she said

I like to think of her as she was when first I knew her, gay, enthusiastic and adventurous, courageous in the face of much misfortune, and very kind.

What seems clear is that Dorothy Wrinch allowed her rhetoric to overwhelm the impact of her work, and that this caused her great harm both within the profession and ultimately within her life.

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