Wrinch, Dorothy (1894–1976)

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Wrinch, Dorothy (1894–1976)

English physicist and philosopher . Name variations: Dorothy Wrinch Nicholson; Dot Wrinch; (pseudonym) Jean Ayling. Born Dorothy Wrinch to English parents in Rosario, Argentina, in 1894; died in February 1976; educated in England; Girton College, Cambridge, B.A. and M.A, 1918; University of London, M.Sc. and D.Sc.; Oxford University, M.A., and was the first woman to receive a D.Sc. from Oxford, 1929; married John Nicholson (an Oxford physicist known for his work on atomic structure), in 1922 (divorced 1938); married O.C. Glaser, in 1941; children: (first marriage) Pamela Wrinch Schenkman (1928–1975).

Appointed lecturer in pure mathematics, University College, London (1918); was a member of the Executive Committee of the Aristotelian Society (1925–26); moved to U.S. (1939); was a member of the chemistry department, Johns Hopkins University (1940–41); taught at Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke (1941–44); taught physics at Smith College (1944–71).

Selected works:

"On the Nature of Judgement" in Mind (Vol. 28, 1919); "On the Nature of Memory" in Mind (Vol. 29, 1920); "On the Structure of Scientific Inquiry" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (New Series 21, 1920–21); "On Certain Methodological Aspects of the Theory of Relativity" in Mind (Vol. 31, 1922); "The Idealist Interpretation of Einstein's Theory"; "On Certain Aspects of Scientific Thought" in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (New Series 24, 1923–24); Chemical Aspects of Polypeptide Chain Structures and the Cyclal Theory (1965).

Scientist Dorothy Wrinch has been labeled variously as a mathematician, biochemist, physicist, and philosopher. Indeed, her work bridged the disciplines of several fields, and helped to reconcile divergences between the biological and physical sciences. Considered brilliant and hard-driven, Wrinch was also known to be zealous and competitive, often so impatient with the politics of science that she was viewed by colleagues as abrasive. Although these charges must be viewed in light of Wrinch's status in a male-dominated profession, she was hardly afraid of controversy. In a 1948 letter, Michael Polanyi told her, "You and I have much in common in the manner we managed to make our scientific careers less dull than usual."

Born in 1894, Wrinch, whose father was an engineer, spent her childhood in Rosario, Argentina, entering Girton College of Cambridge University in 1913, where she specialized in philosophy and epistemology. While there, she excelled in mathematics and was elected a member of the prestigious Aristotelian Society, established to encourage philosophical dialogue. (Her circle of friends during this period is said to have included Bertrand Russell, with whom she studied philosophy.) After receiving her B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1918, she was appointed lecturer in pure mathematics at the University College of the University of London (1918–20), then went on to become a member of the university's research staff (1920–24). In 1922, she also became a member of the faculty of physical science at Oxford University, retaining her association with that university for 17 years. That same year, she married John Nicholson, an Oxford physicist known for his work on atomic structure. Their only child, Pamela Wrinch Schenkman , was born in 1928.

In addition to teaching, Wrinch was a prolific writer. By 1930, she had published 16 papers on philosophy and another 20 on mathematics. Her academic achievements also included advanced degrees from the University of London and Oxford. (In 1929, she was the first woman awarded a D.Sc. from that institution.) In spite of her credentials and seven years' experience teaching mathematics, Wrinch failed in her application for a Rhodes traveling fellowship because, according to her sponsors, she was a woman. She was more successful, however, in subsequent requests, receiving research fellowships from Girton College and Oxford University that allowed her to study at the University of Vienna, the University of Paris, and in Prague and Leyden.

Most of Wrinch's early research focused on mathematics, and the allied studies of mathematical physics, methodology, and the theory of probability, although in 1930, under the pseudonym Jean Ayling, she published The Retreat from Parenthood, a sociological study proposing a broad plan for restructuring social services to make them more compatible with the professional lives of both men and women. Around 1934, she took up the study of structural problems in physiology and chemistry (molecular biology). By means of a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship (1935–41), Wrinch furthered her studies in this direction, concentrating on chromosomes and proteins, and evolving models of protein molecules based on mathematical computations of constructional possibilities. Her findings were presented in 1937, at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Wrinch's "cyclol" theory of the structure of the protein molecules startled the emerging world of molecular biology and caused division within the scientific community between those believing Wrinch had proven her hypothesis and those rallying around her leading and most vocal critic, Linus Pauling. The controversy, which went on for a decade, grew quite heated and led to harsh words between Wrinch and her colleagues, and to her eventual blacklisting by most of the scientific community. The argument completely unnerved Wrinch's 12-year-old daughter, who wrote a letter to Pauling requesting that the two scientists stop attacking one another. "There are many quarrels in the world alas," she wrote. "Don't please let yours be one; it is these things that help to make the world a kingdom of misery!!" (It was some 13 years before the work of Swiss chemist Arthur Stoll verified Wrinch's cyclol hypothesis, but by that time the scientific community had moved on to other things, and paid little attention to the new findings.)

Wrinch was divorced from John Nicholson in 1938, and subsequently moved with Pamela to the United States, where she took a position with the chemistry department of Johns Hopkins University (1940–41). In 1941, amid some local opposition, she was appointed a visiting professor at Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke colleges, where she introduced a series of lectures on the structural problems of biology, chemistry, and the medical sciences, and also offered seminars in molecular biology. That same year, she married Otto Charles Glaser, a biology professor at Amherst, and settled permanently in Massachusetts.

From 1944 until her retirement in 1971, Wrinch was associated exclusively with the physics department at Smith College, where she lectured, conducted seminars and continued her research. In the summers, she taught courses in crystallography at the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The body of her work was impressive, and included techniques for the interpretation and application of 7X-ray data of crystal structures, as well as studies in mineralogy. Before the end of her career, she had produced some 192 publications, covering many branches of science.

Wrinch spent her later years in Woods Hole, where she lost her daughter Pamela in a tragic house fire in November 1975. She died three months later, at age 82. After her death in 1976, a three-day commemorative symposium was held at Smith College.


Kass-Simon, G., and Patricia Farnes. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Women in Science. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Press, 1993.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1947. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1947.

Waithe, Mary Ellen, ed. A History of Women Philosophers. Boston, MA: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987–1995.

Catherine Hundleby , M.A. Philosophy, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada