Dorothy Wrinch: The Early Years

Dorothy Wrinch, 1940. (Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Archives photo)

Dorothy Wrinch, 1940. (Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory Archives photo)

[Part 1 of 4]

Dorothy Maud Wrinch was a mathematician and biochemical theorist who, like many famous scientists, was an extremely complex individual. She became most well-known for her incorrect hypothesis on the structure of proteins and the vicious battle over that hypothesis that ensued between her and Linus Pauling. To a degree, Wrinch’s fame faded along with her incorrect theory, but her story is highly intriguing and we aim to explore it in detail over the next four posts.

(For much more on the life of Wrinch see the biography I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science, by Marjorie Senechal, Oxford University Press: 2012.)

Dorothy Wrinch was born in Argentina on September 12, 1894, the daughter of Hugh Edward Hart Wrinch and Ada Minnie Souter. Her parents were English citizens, at the time living in Rosario, Argentina, where Hugh was working for a British firm that employed him as a mechanical engineer. Once the project in Rosario was completed, the Wrinch family returned to London and Hugh found a job at a waterworks in the London suburbs, at which point Dorothy began attending the nearby Surbiton High School.

Hugh loved mathematics and succeeded in fostering a similar sensibility in Dorothy. In 1913 she received an internship to Girton College, a women’s college at Cambridge University. While there, she began to study math and philosophy, and in her first year was introduced to the famous and controversial philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian and social critic, Bertrand Russell (who would later become a close friend of Pauling’s). In her sophomore year, she began to study mathematical logic under the direction of Russell and quickly became enamored with him. She excelled in her studies, earning numerous awards and honors as the highest ranked woman in her class, and ultimately graduated with extremely high marks.

In 1918 Wrinch began teaching algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and solid geometry to honors students at University College, London. By then she had become deeply infatuated with Russell. She spent huge amounts of free time with him and his social circle, and absorbed many feminist and socialist beliefs from the group. Russell was arrested in 1918 for his active opposition to World War I; specifically, for delivering a speech where he encouraged the United States to ignore Britain and remain neutral. While he was in prison, Wrinch visited him regularly, wrote him numerous letters and often brought him books. In one of her letters to him, she described herself as his disciple, and talked of how proud she was to be an intimate friend of his.

This intimacy abruptly ended in 1919 when Russell began a romantic relationship with Dora Black, a famous feminist, socialist, and proponent of free love. Wrinch felt humiliated, and many of her writings from that time period revolve around issues of trust and betrayal. Wrinch was a self-described manic depressive, and took Russell’s actions very personally and quite badly.

Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling, 1953.

Nonetheless, Wrinch continued teaching at University College, and while doing so she earned a Master of Science degree in 1920, and returned to Girton College with a research fellowship in 1921. She rounded off her upper education and earned a Doctorate of Science in 1922. She was prolific, writing over a dozen papers about the philosophy of science.

The year 1922 was important for Wrinch in more ways than one: in addition to obtaining a doctorate, she also was married to John William Nicholson, the director of studies in physics and math at Oxford. The documentary record suggests that Wrinch and Nicholson met and became engaged rather quickly.

Wrinch also moved to Oxford in 1922 and became a part-time tutor and lecturer in mathematics at Lady Margaret Hall, a women’s college at Oxford. Once established, she branched out, lecturing at Oxford’s five women’s colleges on a per-term basis. Despite her track record of success, she encountered difficulties at Oxford, as its math and science community was tightly bound and very traditional. In this environment, Wrinch found many factors going against her: she was a married woman who also focused on her career; though married she retained her maiden name; she came from a modest social background; she was a feminist and very progressive socially; and she was new to Oxford.

Wrinch’s situation improved when she received an appointment as full-time mathematics lecturer for three years, making her the first woman to obtain such a position at Oxford. Her position also meant that male students would attend her lectures which was almost unheard of – female lecturers generally lectured to exclusively female audiences.

Her life was changed forever in 1928 with the birth of her daughter Pamela. Pam truly was the single greatest happiness and love of Wrinch’s life, as is instantly apparent by reading letters where Pam is described. Unfailiingly, Wrinch uses nothing but the most glowing of terms of endearment to describe her daughter.

As the 1920s drew to a close, Wrinch found herself a new mother, a scientific pioneer and a social radical. As she looked ahead, she charted a path that would make herself stand out even more: in an age where most British women would focus on career or marriage and motherhood, Wrinch decided that she would do all three.

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A Royal Welcome

The Paulings at Magdalen Great Tower, Oxford. 1948.

[The Paulings in England: Part 2 of 5]

Arriving in Oxford right at the start of 1948, the Paulings had ample time to settle in before Linus Pauling’s first lecture on January 20th.  Shortly after unpacking, the family purchased bicycles for the whole group, and taken time “to peddle around the countryside.” The Paulings also explored their new surroundings in England via a “four-day automobile trip – to Cambridge, Peterborough, Nottingham, Manchester, Chester, Shrewsbury, and back to Oxford.”

By February, they had assimilated well into their new temporary home, and Pauling’s Oxford lectures were proving to be very popular – as he wrote to his Caltech colleague Carl Niemann: “My lectures have been going across well – there are 250 or 300 auditors still attending them.” A good start for what Pauling would later refer to as “one of the happiest years of my life.”

His regular schedule – two lectures on the nature of the chemical bond at 5:15 Tuesdays and Fridays, plus a weekly afternoon seminar in inorganic chemistry each Wednesday at 2:30 – sounds light, but Pauling certainly wasn’t taking it easy. On the contrary, Pauling was in high demand as a lecturer; not only were his Oxford lectures packed with standing room only, but he was also invited to speak all around England and Europe.  Everyone from the Istituto Chimico in Italy to the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker in Hesse, Germany wanted to hear what this brilliant scientist and dynamic speaker had to divulge about their favorite field.

The clamor for Pauling was such that he was forced to turn many offers down, but still managed to give a mind-boggling thirty-nine lectures over six months, in addition to the three per week required by his Eastman Professorship.  As he wrote to his colleague Robert Corey, who was holding down the lab back in Pasadena,

I am continuing to get along very well – perhaps being kept a little too busy, with so many extra lectures to deliver. However, I feel that when there is so much interest in what I have to say it is proper that I make the effort to say it.

Among those who had the opportunity to hear him speak were attendees of many universities in England and Scotland, The Chemical Society, the British Undergraduate School of Medicine, as well as those who attended the three Scott Lectures for the Physics Department at Cambridge.  Pauling also gave three lectures at University College, London, the Sir Jesse Boot Lecture at Nottingham, a Bedson Lecture at Newcastle, The Liversidge Lecture for the Chemical Society and the first Lyell Lecture at Oxford.

In short, he was the toast of the town.  Priscilla Roth, Pauling’s secretary during his time at Oxford, wrote in a letter that Pauling was “getting a royal welcome everywhere he goes.”  And despite the Paulings’ initial disappointment in their lodgings, which kept the couple from entertaining their English friends to the extent they had originally hoped, the pair nonetheless found themselves swept up in a social whirlwind, attending an event almost every night – be it dinner, musical entertainment, or the ubiquitous English sherry party.

A prime example of this royal treatment was the reception afforded Pauling during his Friday Evening Lecture at the Royal Institution in London on February 27.   After a grand dinner, Pauling presented an hour long talk on “The Nature of Forces between Large Molecules of Biological Interest” to a glamorous audience of men in tuxedos and women draped in furs and jewels. Pauling biographer Thomas Hager described the evening as “an artifact from the days when the sciences were patronized like the arts … the scientific equivalent of playing Carnegie Hall.”


Trappings aside, the content of Pauling’s major lectures were ground-breaking.  As befitted his turn from structural chemistry to topics in molecular biology, his presentations typically brought to life new insight into the tiny world of molecules.

To begin, Pauling often posed the question, “what is it that defines living organisms as alive?”  He proposed that it is molecular architecture that makes creatures unique and imparts upon them the properties that we identify as life. Expounding on this thesis, Pauling would speak of the wonders of the giant molecules that comprise living organisms and their special biological roles.  In so doing, Pauling touched on the oxygen-carrying proteins hemoglobin and myoglobin as well as the mechanics of catalysis by enzymes.

Importantly, Pauling also remarked on the then-mysterious question of the genetic material – for this was in the years before the structure of DNA had been surmised by Watson and Crick. At the time, it was thought to be the “molecules of nucleoprotein” – instead of DNA itself – “that determine the characters of individual living organisms and that are involved in the transmission of these characters to their progeny.”

Pauling likewise questioned the boundaries of life by mentioning viruses: “Although these molecules may not ordinarily carry out the processes of respiration of air and metabolism of foodstuffs that we usually associate with life, they have one important property that causes us to regard them as living, the property of producing progeny.”  From there he brought the focus back to the triumph of the human body in discussing the operations of what he described as the biological “police force” of antibodies in identifying invaders, including viruses, and forming defenses against them.

After an exciting journey through the networks of biology and chemistry within the human body, Pauling often finished his lectures with a proposal that molecular architecture could be used to understand and attack degenerative diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, in the same way that penicillin and the sulpha drugs had so nearly eradicated infectious disease in the first half of the century.


Ava Helen Pauling at Stonehenge, 1948.

Though most of Pauling’s talks focused on scientific topics, he didn’t forget about the peace pledge that he had made on the Queen Mary. Indeed, as he traveled around England, Pauling was frequently able to make forays into the world of politics and peace in speeches such as the “The Third Party Movement in the United States,” presented to the English Speaking Union at Oxford University in March.

Somewhat radical in a time when Americans were fostering a mounting fear of communism and the Soviet Union, Pauling promoted a third party outside of the Republicans and Democrats called the Progressive Citizens of America, a group that identified itself as a “mild socialist organization” and supported George Wallace for President. Pauling’s speech painted for his British audience a portrait of the hysterical fears that were evolving into the Cold War. Socialism was lumped with communism in the minds of the American majority, and thus pressure from capitalists on the third party was very great – members and advocates of the movement were being questioned and losing their jobs.

Pauling was also critical of the Marshall Plan, which included $13 billion in U.S. aid for the European Recovery Program, and was worried about what would happen to industry in the hands of private owners now that there had been a “decision made that the Western European Union is to be capitalistic, patterned after past and present U.S., rather than socialistic, patterned after England.”  With the pressure building stateside on those deemed to have communist sympathies, it must have been a relief for outspoken Pauling to escape the tension, even if momentarily, prevailing in his home country.

The Paulings Go to England, 1947-1948

Crellin Pauling on the Queen Mary, 1948.

[Ed Note: Throughout 2011 the Pauling Blog will be featuring stories of the Paulings’ travels around the world.  This is part 1 of 5 in a series exploring the Paulings’ time in England, where they lived and worked for parts of two years after the close of World War II.]

The Second World War had come to a close and Linus Pauling was in transition from his war-time work back to the regular goings-on at the California Institute of Technology when he received an enticing invitation. Frank Aydelotte, American Secretary for the Rhodes Scholarship Trust and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (academic home of such greats as Albert Einstein), wrote Pauling in January of 1946 proposing his appointment as the George Eastman Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford for the coming academic year.

The appointment would include a Professorial Fellowship at Balliol College – among the oldest of Oxford’s thirty-eight colleges. It was an attractive offer; with only two or three lectures a week required of him, Pauling would have ample time to visit other European universities and steep in the vibrant culture of international chemistry.

Pauling felt deeply honored by the invitation and was anxious to return to Europe once more after his last visit in 1930. But the appointment would have to wait a year while he remained in Pasadena to develop the chemistry and biology programs at CIT and finish his freshman text, General Chemistry, published in 1947. After much correspondence between Aydelotte and Pauling it was decided in early 1947 that he would serve as Eastman Professor for the winter and spring terms of 1948.

Though the professorship was postponed, Linus and Ava Helen managed to squeeze in a visit to England and Switzerland in June and July of 1947 for a mix of vacation and conferences. As was typical, the Paulings were kept busy with a multitude of social affairs. But after much hustle and bustle in Cambridge, where Pauling received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Cambridge, and Oxford, where he made preparations for his coming professorship, some quiet days in London and Stockholm were found, which the couple “devoted exclusively to resting and sight-seeing.”

Pauling receiving an honorary doctorate of science from the Earl of Athlone, University of London. July 1947.

Pauling’s role at the forefront of American chemistry (he would learn right before embarking on his voyage in December 1947 that he had been chosen as President-Elect of the American Chemical Society) also garnered him a key place in chemical matters abroad, and his July was filled to the brim with meetings and conferences. After three days at the International Congress of Experimental Cytology in Stockholm, he returned to England for the International Congress of Pure and Applied Chemistry. This event coincided with the International Union of Chemistry, where Pauling presided as Congress Lecturer, as well as the Centenary Celebration of The Chemical Society at the University of London.

At the latter event, Pauling received another honorary degree and delivered an after-dinner speech on behalf of his fellow honorary graduates.  In it, he called scientists to action and leadership in ending war and expressed hope that soon there would be a “supra-national world government, and that we shall all be fellow citizens, citizens of the world.”


Their two-month escape primed the Paulings’ excitement for their extended stay the coming year. However, the planning for the upcoming trip proved to be almost as difficult as the initial decision of when to go.

With England in the beginning stages of recovery from the war, travel in the UK was less than ideal. Securing a house for the five Paulings proved such a difficult task that the entire trip was on the verge of being canceled a month before departure. Ultimately the family decided to make the sacrifice of staying in a hotel – Linton Lodge – for several weeks until a small flat was finally procured for them.

The strict food rationing implemented in England during wartime carried over into the post-war years and presented a challenge for Ava Helen in preparing the very strict low protein diet necessary for keeping the effects of her husband’s nephritis at bay. Linus Pauling’s doctor, Thomas Addis, even wrote to The Ration Board to ensure that the visiting scientist would be able to receive the forty grams of protein (from eggs, milk, cheese, cereals, vegetables and fruits – not meat, chicken or fish) required by his unique 2,500-3,000 calorie diet.

Indeed, Pauling left no stone unturned in his planning, even writing to a doctor friend for advice on preventing seasickness. Despite initial skepticism that schools would be found for the children over in England, Ava Helen managed to enroll nine-year-old Crellin in the Dragon School – where he was the best man in his form – and fifteen-year-old Linda in the Oxford High School for girls, of which she maintained fond memories of the navy blue uniforms and fit in quite well, aside from her difficult Latin classes. Peter Pauling had just started his first term at Caltech, but was able to keep up with his studies overseas by studying independently with tutoring from an American Rhodes Scholar. Linus Pauling, Jr had just married Anita Oser – the great-granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller and Cyrus Hall McCormick – and the young couple remained in the States while the family embarked on their adventure.

Linus, Peter, Crellin, Linda and Ava Helen Pauling, 1947.

The excitement started for the Pauling children before they even boarded the Queen Mary and set sail for England on December 26.  During the holiday period, New York City was experiencing its worst snowstorm in years and it was the first time the three sunny California natives had seen the snow. Despite the marvels of the winter wonderland, the family really was stuck, and it was only by a stroke of luck (and some extra cash up front) that the Paulings were able to convince a taxi driver to push his way through to the docks and get them to their ship on time. They celebrated New Year’s Eve on the boat and in an interview Linda recalled that the members of the Canadian Ski Team, who were also on the same Atlantic voyage, were dancing with her all night – that is, until they found out that she was only 14!

Linus Pauling must have spent some time during the journey across the sea in introspective thought, for it was during this trip that he wrote his famous pledge, on the back of a piece of cardboard announcing one of his lectures: “I hereby make avowal that from this day henceforth I shall include mention of world peace in every lecture and address that I give.”  This pledge was just the first of many important moments in Pauling’s life that would occur as a result of his time in England.