Despite its misuse and abuse by capitalism, Iain Robertson illustrates how science and scientists have a progressive role to play.

As debates continue about GM crops, global warming and environmental degradation, scientists can easily become regarded as a faceless group in the pay of the industrial/military machine that increasingly blights our lives across the globe. As with any other community, political convictions within the scientific community range across the full spectrum. Fortunately, given the power of science and its misuse and abuse on the part of corporations, the military and governments, in every generation there have been those who chose to serve human kind by promoting enlightenment and truth, and by linking their search for scientific truth to social and political justice. We are all aware of the involvement of scientists in the development of the ‘real’ WMD programmes of the UK and the USA but we are not so aware of those scientists who speak out against abuses of science and against abuses of human rights.

There are many historical examples of the involvement of scientists in the politics of the day. You will not be surprised to learn that most of their names are virtually unknown and that even where the names are in the history books, the science text books or in the media, their political activities are not.

Lavoisier had his head chopped off in France and Joseph Priestley was hounded by the mob in Birmingham. They were contemporaries; rivals in the search to isolate and identify the ‘active’ ingredient in air – oxygen gas. Lavoisier funded his scientific research using the generous cut he took as a tax farmer for King Louis XIV. In France, the revolution won and Lavoisier paid the price for his supposed Royalist sympathies, while in England the revolution had failed and Priestley, as a public supporter of the French and American revolutionary ideals, narrowly escaped death at the hands of a mob whipped up by the Tories of the day. To be fair to Lavoisier, it is reported that he was one of the more liberal minded tax collectors who attempted to secure reforms to the system.

Kathleen Lonsdale – woman pioneer in a man’s world

But this article is about a 20th century mathematician, physicist, chemist and mother of three imprisoned by the British government during the WWII and later awarded the CBE. Her name is Kathleen Lonsdale (nee Yardley). Kathleen Yardley was the youngest of ten children, born to Harry and Jessie Yardley, in Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Her father was postmaster at Newbridge Post Office, following a career in the British army. He married Jessie Cameron, a Scot, in 1889. He read widely and Kathleen later said, I think it was from him that I inherited my passion for facts. Unfortunately he had a drink problem and the home wasn’t happy, and in 1908 Kathleen’s mother left him and brought the children to Seven Kings in Essex. He only visited them occasionally and died when Kathleen was 20. Her mother was a Christian of the Strict Baptist persuasion and Kathleen’s earliest memories are of attending Church of Ireland services and the Methodist Sunday School in Newbridge, and learning to count with yellow balls in the local school. She was the youngest of ten children, four girls and six boys. Four of her brothers died in infancy and Kathleen commented in later life, Perhaps, for my sake, it was as well that there was no testimony against a high birth rate in those days.

She attended classes in Physics, Chemistry and Higher Mathematics at the High School for Boys (the only girl) as her school didn’t offer these subjects. Poverty forced her older siblings to quit school and go out to work to help support the family. [Her brother Fred Yardley became one of the earliest wireless operators and was the person who received the last signals from the Titanic in 1912.]

Being the only girl in a male world was the beginning of a lifetime’s struggle. She was encouraged to come into the developing field of X-ray crystallography by its leading exponent, William Bragg. Kathleen Lonsdale made the most of this opportunity and her abilities, despite an unfavourable family background, the heavy demands of family life and several moves. She said, in her characteristically humble way,

My own research life has been greatly enriched by having been broken into by periods of enforced change. I was not idle while I had my three children; far from it. But it gave me the opportunity of standing back, as it were, and looking at my work. And I came back with new ideas.

Blazing a trail

One of the fruits of these ‘new ideas’ was the breakthrough in techniques for mapping the exact structure, atom by atom in 3 dimensions, of molecules such as penicillin. It was this that allowed the laboratory synthesis of these important molecules previously only available naturally in small quantities. In short, she played a critical part in making modern medicines available to the masses. Of course, today her work would be the intellectual property of Monsanto or Glaxo and it is this, rather than ‘science’ or scientists, that is the problem.

She achieved many firsts in the arena of professional science and broke through several glass ceilings, particularly in the field of crystallography where women now have one of the highest representations compared to other physical sciences.

Kathleen Lonsdale was one of the women pioneers in a man’s world, the world of professional scientists. She opened the way for other women, and crystallography became an area of the physical sciences where women became prominent. Maureen Julian showed in a survey of crystallographers that around 14% were women in the early 1990s, compared to around 2% of physicists. Thus women are more numerous and more prominent in this area of science than in related sciences. This was due firstly to the influences of William and his son, Lawrence Bragg, in the 1920s and 1930s. They encouraged many women to take up crystallography, and then to the influence of Kathleen Lonsdale, who was one of the most prominent women in science from the late 1930s to her death in 1971.

Dorothy Hodgkin, although not a student of Kathleen Lonsdale, was influenced by reading one of her papers while an undergraduate. Dorothy Hodgkin went on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her application of crystallography to solving the structures of important biological molecules, and she also encouraged many women to take up crystallography as a career. But Kathleen Lonsdale was the pioneer woman in this area and was recognized as follows:

  • One of the first two women elected as Fellows of the Royal Society (1945)
  • First woman professor at University College, London (1949)
  • First woman president of the International Union of Crystallography (1966)
  • First woman president of the British Association of Science (1968)

There is an irony about the date of her election to the Royal Society at the close of WWII. This is an ‘honour’ given by scientists to each other and it may have been the scientific community recognizing more than just her contribution to science. Kathleen Lonsdale was brought up as a Strict Baptist by her mother but as an adult she found its beliefs rather restrictive. She and her husband, having looked around for a suitable church to join, eventually joined the Quakers, or Society of Friends.

Their strongly pacifist yet activist position appealed to Kathleen, whose abhorrence of war had grown since WWI when she lived near London under the Zeppelin flight path. At the beginning of WWII everyone was expected to register for war service of some sort, but Kathleen refused registration since there was no exception on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. She was eventually summonsed and fined £2. When she refused to pay the fine she was sent to Holloway Prison for one month, wearing prison clothes, cleaning floors and doing other jobs. She took this course of action despite the fact that she would have been exempted as a mother of three young children. However, she was allowed books and papers and managed seven hours scientific work every day.

Prison reform

This marked the start of a life-long interest in prison reform and she became a Prison Visitor for several women’s prisons after the war. 1945 was also the year she joined the growing movement of scientists against the Atomic bomb. She visited many countries after the war including Russia and China, but she had trouble getting a visa to visit the USA. One embassy official told her: You’ve been to the three most difficult places’ Russia, China and gaol. While in prison she discovered a fallacy behind statistics used by the authorities. This surfaced again in 1998 when her daughter, Nancy, wrote to the Guardian as follows:

I was intrigued by the statistic in Peter Gorman’s letter (March 7th) that in 1996-7 ‘while 11 per cent of people in England and Wales are Roman Catholic, 17 per cent of those in prison are’. My mother, Kathleen Lonsdale, spent a month in Holloway prison in 1943. She was a Quaker and had refused to pay a fine for not registering for fire watching. On arrival a friendly inmate whispered that it was better to register as a Roman Catholic. They were issued with bibles with red covers, which, if wetted, could produce a passable substitute for lipstick. Protestants were given blue covered bibles. My mother used this anecdote to illustrate the pitfalls of interpreting statistics.

In many ways her work for peace and for prison reform, in the best traditions of Christian activism, were as significant as her scientific work. The title of one of her non-scientific books was Is Peace Possible? and another was The Christian Life Lived Experimentally. She was an activist in the best sense of the word, and she implemented this in her scientific as well as in her Christian and social activities. In one of her talks on religion she said: It is necessary to believe that in God’s world there is always a right course of immediate action. That was a philosophy that she put into action herself and persuaded others around her to do the same.

Coming as she did from a poor Irish/Scots working class background and being a successful woman in a male world she could so easily have ‘sold out’, accepted the honours and accolades and become part of the establishment. Instead she fought for women’s rights and prison reform, and was very active in anti-war work.

Emancipatory role

And while tens of thousands of senior science pupils and science undergraduates study her discoveries few, if any, will know her name, and while thousands of science teachers and lecturers teach her discoveries few, if any, will know anything about her life even if they do know the name. And this is because today’s scientists are largely cut off from their own history and heritage. They do not know of the emancipatory role that scientists have often played in freeing the human mind from myth and superstition and in challenging the philosophical basis upon which the ruling classes of the day have depended.

We need within the SSP to address the issue of education. We need to create systems that encourage our pupils and student how to think, not just what to think; we need to foster greater awareness of the history of ideas and we need to reinvigorate scientists with as sense of social responsibility.

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