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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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.

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.

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins: A Documentary History

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Today is Linus Pauling’s birthday – he would have been 112 years old.  Every year on February 28th we try to do something special and this time around we’re pleased to announce a project about which we’re all very excited: the sixth in our series of Pauling documentary history websites.

Launched today, Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins is the both latest in the documentary history series and our first since 2010’s The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling. (we’ve been a little busy these past few years)  Like Pauling’s program of proteins research, the new website is sprawling and multi-faceted.  It features well over 200 letters and manuscripts, as well as the usual array of photographs, papers, audio and video that users of our sites have come to expect.  A total of more than 400 primary source materials illustrate and provide depth to the site’s 45-page Narrative, which was written by Pauling biographer Thomas Hager.

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Warren Weaver, 1967.

That narrative tells a remarkable story that was central to many of the twentieth century’s great breakthroughs in molecular biology.  Readers will, for example, learn much of Pauling’s many interactions with Warren Weaver and the Rockefeller Foundation, the organization whose interest in the “science of life” helped prompt Pauling away from his early successes on the structure of crystals in favor of investigations into biological topics.

So too will users learn about Pauling’s sometimes caustic confrontations with Dorothy Wrinch, whose cyclol theory of protein structure was a source of intense objection for Pauling and his colleague, Carl Niemann.  Speaking of colleagues, the website also delves into the fruitful collaboration enjoyed between Pauling and his Caltech co-worker, Robert Corey.  The controversy surrounding Pauling’s interactions with another associate, Herman Branson, are also explored on the proteins website.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Linus Pauling shaking hands with Peter Lehman in front of two models of the alpha-helix. 1950s.

Much is known about Pauling’s famously lost “race for DNA,” contested with Jim Watson, Francis Crick and a handful of others in the UK.  Less storied is the long running competition between Pauling’s laboratory and an array of British proteins researchers, waged several years before Watson and Crick’s breakthrough.  That triumph, the double helix, was inspired by Pauling’s alpha helix, discovered one day when Linus lay sick in bed, bored and restless as he fought off a cold. (This was before the vitamin C days, of course.)

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Illustration of the antibody-antigen framework, 1948.

Many more discoveries lie in waiting for those interested in the history of molecular biology: the invention of the ultracentrifuge by The Svedberg; Pauling’s long dalliance with a theory of antibodies; his hugely important concept of biological specificity; and the contested notion of coiled-coils, an episode that once again pit Pauling versus Francis Crick.

Linus Pauling and the Structure of Proteins constitutes a major addition to the Pauling canon. It is an enormously rich resource that will suit the needs of many types of researchers, students and educators. It is, in short, a fitting birthday present for history’s only recipient of two unshared Nobel Prizes.

Happy birthday, Dr. Pauling!

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