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.