PROFESSOR DAME KATHLEEN LONSDALE / X-ray crystallographer, pacifist

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Professor Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, 1903–1971

X-ray crystallographer, pacifist

Kathleen Yardley was born in Co. Kildare in 1903, the youngest of ten children. Her Scottish mother and Irish father had an unhappy marriage; the family was wretchedly poor, four of the ten children died, and their postmaster father abused alcohol. By 1908, her parents separated, and Kathleen and her surviving siblings were brought to Essex by their mother.

Kathleen excelled through elementary and high school. She entered Bedford College, University of London aged 16, where she chose to read physics because, like Kay McNulty, she was worried that the only career open to women maths graduates was teaching–something she did not wish to do. In 1922, she achieved the highest grades in the BSc exams that had been seen at University of London for ten years and, as a result, was invited to join Nobel physicist Professor William Bragg’s research school. The post brought an income of £180 per year, with which Kathleen helped her family. She was the only woman in a group of international researchers. She collaborated with international scientists to produce theI nternational Tablesor ‘crystallographer’s bible’, comprehensive tables for determining crystalstructure.

In 1927, Kathleen married Thomas Lonsdale. Contrary to her expectation that he might wish her to assume a traditional domestic role, he encouraged her to continue her scientific research. In 1929, she made her first major discovery, solving an important question that scientists had been arguing over for sixty years: she demonstrated conclusively that the benzene ring was flat. Her later contributions to science included important investigations into natural and synthetic diamonds.

By 1931, Kathleen and Thomas had two children. She worked on calculations at home for a time, until Sir William Bragg intervened to secure her return to professional research by creating a position for her at the Royal Institution, including provision for childcare. She worked there for 15 years. In the 1940s, she gained the recognition she so richly reserved. In May 1945, she became one of the first two women elected Fellow of the Royal Society, 300 years after the Society’s foundation. A year later, she was appointed reader in crystallography at University College London, and in 1949, she became the first woman professor at the university. She was also the first woman president of the International Union of Crystallography.

During this time, she developed interests outside of the sciences. A Quaker by convincement, she conscientiously objected to registering for civil defence service during World War II and, refusing on principle to pay a fine of £2, she spent a month in Holloway Prison. Her husband later reflected that prison was the single most formative experience of her life, fostering a lifelong interest in penal reform. She became president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and published many articles on pacifism. Her 1957 book, Is Peace Possible? cites Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement, and–as co-founder of the Pugwash Movement and the Atomic Scientists’ Association–warns of the danger of nuclear weapons and the problems presented by the disposal of nuclear waste. She was a witty person. When, in 1966, a rare form of hexagonal diamond was named lonsdaleite in her honour, she wrote: ‘It makes me feel both proud and rather humble [...]the name seems appropriate since the mineral only occurs in very small quantities... and it is generally rather mixed up!’

Lonsdale made important scientific contributions, published prolifically, and worked tirelessly for humanitarian goals. She advocated for women in science, publishing instructions on the topic in 1970–her first piece of advice was to choose a supportive husband, as she had.

Sources:Dorothy M.C. Hodgkin, ‘Kathleen Lonsdale, 28 January 1903–1 April 1971,Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 21 (Nov. 1975), 447–84; Peter Childs and Anne Mac Lellan, ‘The Stuff of Diamonds in Lab Coats and Lace,ed.Mary Mulvilhill (WITS, 2009), 145–155; Kathleen Lonsdale, ‘Is Peace Possible?’, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing,ed.Angela Bourke (Cork University Press, 2002), IV, 648–52.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.