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Who was Dorothy Wrinch?

Remembered today for her much publicized feud with Linus Pauling over the shape of proteins, known as “the cyclol controversy,” Dorothy Wrinch made essential contributions to the fields of Darwinism, probability and statistics, quantum mechanics, x-ray diffraction, and computer science. The first women to receive a doctor of science degree from Oxford University, her understanding of the science of crystals and the ever-changing notion of symmetry has been fundamental to science.

We sat down with Marjorie Senechal, author of I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science, to explore the life of this brilliant and controversial figure.

Who was Dorothy Wrinch?

Dorothy Wrinch was a British mathematician and a student of Bertrand Russell. An exuberant, exasperating personality, she knew no boundaries, academic or otherwise. She sowed fertile seeds in many fields of science — philosophy, mathematics, seismology, probability, genetics, protein chemistry, crystallography.

What is she remembered for?

Unfortunately, she’s mainly remembered for her battle with the chemist Linus Pauling. Dorothy proposed the first-ever model for protein architecture, provoking a world-class controversy in scientific circles. Linus led her opponents; few noticed that his arguments were as wrong as her model was.

Why did he attack her research and career with such ferocity?

In those days before scientific imaging, scientists imagined. Outsized personalities, fierce ambitions, and cultural misunderstandings also played a role. And gender bias: Dorothy didn’t know her place. She didn’t suffer critics gratefully, or fools gladly. On a deeper level, the fight was philosophical. Imagination and experiment, beauty and truth are entangled inseparably, then and now.

Linus won two Nobel prizes. What became of Dorothy?

Dorothy, a single mother, came to the United States with her daughter at the beginning of World War II, and eventually settled in Massachusetts; she taught at Smith College for many years and wrote scientific books and papers. But her career never recovered. I wrote this book to find out why.

Marjorie Senechal is the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor Emerita in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology, Smith College, and Co-Editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer. She is the author of I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science.

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