DAME KATHLEEN LONSDALE / Scientist, Educator & Activist


Scientist, Educator and Activist

Kildare / Essex / London / Leeds

1903 – 1971

Kathleen Lonsdale was an outstanding scientist who made enormous contributions to the field of crystallography, a science which studies the order of atoms and molecules in crystals. The Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin quite rightly said of her: 'There is a sense in which she appeared to own the whole of crystallography in her time'.

Born Kathleen Yardley in Newbridge, County Kildare on 28th January 1903, she moved to Essex in England with her mother and siblings in 1908. Kathleen excelled at the girls school but maths and science weren’t offered so she attended the local boys school for these subjects. After a Bachelor of Science from Bedford College for women in London in 1922, she studied for a Master of Science at University College London (UCL) where she met William H. Bragg. He offered her the chance to learn about the very new science of X-ray crystallography at the famous Royal Institution in London, where she was awarded a Doctor of Science in 1936 from UCL.

She married Thomas Lonsdale in 1927, who stated that he was attracted to Kathleen because of her mathematical ability and he said to Dorothy Hodgkin that 'he had not married to get a free housekeeper.’ The Lonsdales then moved to Leeds for three years and while at the University of Leeds Kathleen made an enormous breakthrough. Chemists had been arguing for over 100 years about the arrangement of atoms in a molecule called benzene, an important part of gasoline. It was first isolated in 1825 by Michael Faraday but the order of the atoms was hotly contested. Fast forward to 1928 and Kathleen Lonsdale uses X-ray crystallography to work out the order of atoms in hexamethylbenzene. Note hexamethylbenzene, not benzene - benzene at room temperature is liquid but Kathleen needed a solid crystal for her crystallography experiment.

Kathleen was a Quaker strongly committed to pacifism, which meant she would not comply with the mandatory war duties during the Second World War. She was fined £2 but refused to pay, so in 1943 she was sent to Holloway prison in London for a month. She subsequently became a lifelong supporter of prison reform and was a regular prison visitor to women's prisons.

Her full list of accolades includes admission as one of the first women fellows of the Royal Society in 1945 (a very prestigious honour indeed), receipt of the first female professorship at UCL in 1949, appointment as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1956 and election as first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1968. The BAAS promoted science education, which she strongly believed in. She once made an important note to herself that clearly highlights this: 'Never refuse an opportunity to speak in schools'. This incredible woman achieved all of this without compromising her beliefs, family relationship or social responsibility.

Thanks to herstorian Claire Murray for this herstory. 

Image: Kathleen Lonsdale, Acc. 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archivess