Forgetting Dorothy Wrinch: Science and the Culture of Correctness

By Boer DengMarch 16, 2013

I Died for Beauty by Marjorie Senechal

SCIENCE IS OFTEN INDICTED for the coldness of its absolutism. Its inflexible distinction between right and wrong leaves no room for the more human shades of interpretive grey. Yet we accept that, in science, being right and getting there first constitute the metrics of worthiness. E.O. Wilson summed it up nicely: “Original discovery is everything […] Make an important discovery and you are a successful scientist in the true, elitist sense [...] fail to discover and you are little or nothing.” Scientific culture is indifferent towards those whose ambition in this regard is left unfulfilled; we don’t care about, nor do we remember, those who devoted a lifetime to discovery but came up short.

Is this fair, and is this the right way or even a useful way to think about science? Marjorie Senechal’s biography I Died for Beauty implicitly begs the question. Its subject, Dorothy Wrinch, was not strictly-speaking a scientist. Though a mathematician by training — her methods were theoretical rather than empirical — she claimed in the 1930s to have answered one of the great scientific questions of her time. In those days, the composition of proteins was known (proteins are molecules built from smaller subunits called “amino acids”), but not their greater architecture; the floors were in place, but no one knew what the building looked like. Finding the answer might explain life’s biological foundations. Wrinch eschewed experiments and arrived at a shape purely through mathematical calculations. She proposed that proteins were amino acid nets folded into Platonic shapes — “cyclols,” as she called them. These constructs have in fact never been found. Protein's structures were later elucidated — even Wrinch’s biographer admits that their true shapes “looked nothing like cyclols.”

We are, then, not disposed to care much about Wrinch, the originator of a discredited theory. We might more quickly empathize with Wrinch as someone who lived a life replete with the joys and sorrows common to human experience, but made unusual by personal circumstance.


Wrinch had exceptional accomplishments: born in Argentina to English parents, she was among the earliest of the university women at Cambridge. She graduated with first class honors in mathematics in 1916, a notable achievement; she was a protégé of Bertrand Russell, and had a hand in getting Wittgenstein’s Tractatus published; she became the first woman to receive a D. Sc. in mathematics from Oxford. Wrinch published papers on the scientific method, seismology, mathematics, and philosophy before turning, mid-career, to proteins. This last interest endured longest and became the one on which her reputation would rest.

Her interest in proteins was not arbitrary. Cyclols were a ticket to employment, which Wrinch desperately needed at that point in her life. A few years into her marriage to John Nicholson — a fellow at Balliol College, Oxford — in 1922, he suffered a breakdown and was committed to an institution. Wrinch herself had only a part-time salary. The cause of Nicholson's collapse is unknown, but his hospitalization in 1930 left her alone with their young daughter, Pam, and largely without income.

She applied unsuccessfully for the Rhodes Scholarship (they rejected her because women were deemed ineligible) and for Rockefeller funding (she applied for two grants, in different subjects, making her appear unserious), before receiving money through fellowships in Vienna in 1931. It was from the contacts she made there that she was opened to new ideas in mathematical biology, and returning to England, found it a field of active research. Along with some Cambridge associates, she became a charter member of the Theoretical Biology Club, and early on had ideas for starting an institute. This never happened, but the cyclols idea that came out of the club gatherings later generated interest and grant monies.

In short, she was a single mother trying to make it in a grueling career. Proteins gave her a chance at reinvention (Wrinch seemed intent on a new start, even calling herself “Delta” rather than “Dot,” as she had previously been known), but this meant her life now required her cyclols hypothesis; as long as cyclols were possible, work was possible. Cyclols filled an intellectual and also practical need. How aptly the word “brainchild” describes the theory; indeed, the love that came of Wrinch’s devotion might be deemed akin to parental love. It was born of long professional gestation and imbued with unshakeable, almost unreasonable faith.

She sacrificed a great deal for this intellectual offspring — even, it seems, sympathy with her real child. One of her letters from 1941 reveals how much the sacrifice weighed on her: “Darling Pam is growing so sweetly but she has the awful craving for comfort which is being satisfied. . .by passionate devotion to the Church of all things,” Wrinch writes. “But I welcome it as she needs more comfort than I can give her.” At that point, cyclols were already occupying a tenuous position, but dogged commitment to them must have felt like the only option.

These stressors left their mark. An acquaintance, the mathematician Sir D’Arcy Thompson, observed in Wrinch “a certain excitability, a certain forced gaiety” that “all comes of frayed nerves,” and what one imagines must have been a tense, existential desperation. But, in the end, her cyclols came to nothing.


Senechal does not appear particularly interested in telling us this story in I Died for Beauty. She never fills in or remarks upon the poignant sketches drawn by Wrinch’s contemporaries, instead offering up such generic descriptions of Wrinch as “beautiful,” “vivacious,” and “loves company.” Rather, Senechal’s preoccupation lies with defending — or, at least, massaging — the virtues of a disproven theory. We are told in great detail how Wrinch’s detractors “were right that she was wrong, but they gave the wrong reasons” for how she was wrong; or that she was wrong about cyclols, but they ignored her other contributions, the parts that were right; or that she was wrong, but it’s unfair because others who were wrong are still lauded and she is not.

But Wrinch as “the wronged heroine” is a story entirely at odds with the accounts Senechal herself presents. Wrinch’s theorizing began in the company of friends from Cambridge. “The cyclol theory partly grew out of conversations with [John Desmond] Bernal and myself,” Dorothy Hodgkin told the author. “We were both convinced it was wrong almost immediately in 1936 as we read up more protein chemistry and did experiments. But our arguments, of a chemical kind [...] did not convince her.” Bernal was pioneering X-ray crystallography, a method that involved using X-rays to photograph inside pure protein crystals and calculating their structures from the resulting diffraction pictures. Wrinch would later claim (wrongly) that his diffraction results proved her theory; he ended their friendship to protect the credibility of his nascent field. Hodgkin, Bernal’s student, would go on to win the Nobel Prize and later solve the structure of insulin based on the X-ray work they did together.

Cyclols were debunked entirely when John Kendrew and Max Perutz presented the first protein structure of hemoglobin in 1951. By then, Wrinch had decamped to the United States, remarried, and was teaching at Smith College; Senechal met her there years later while working as her research assistant.

Wrinch herself favored the persecution narrative, complaining to Senechal decades later that “first they said my structure could not exist in nature. Then when it was found in nature, they said it couldn’t be synthesized. Then when it was synthesized, they said it wasn’t important anyway.” This isn’t really true — some features, like the chemical bonds and crystal patterns in her model, have been found in nature, but nothing like her origami amino acid cages. Personal admiration for Wrinch (made explicit in her book) clearly limits Senechal's abilities as a biographer. The volume bears witness to all the indignations, slights, and bile Wrinch felt through a second-hand perspective. The result is an inconsistent, uncontrolled biography in which the primary story that emerges is of Wrinch's bitterness.

The impulse to argue for mistreatment is not unreasonable; female scientists were then in a tiny minority and undoubtedly did not have an easy time. A legacy of casual sexism obviously exists even in more modern times. A popular field history from 2001 by the biochemist Charles Tanford, for example, calls Wrinch's “despised” cyclol theory “the most forgettable of all the fruits of the 1930s’ harvest, not really worth more than a footnote [...] a theory built on nothing, no training, no relevant skills.” Tanford then continues in a footnote about one of Wrinch's supporters, E.H. Neville: “It turns out that Neville was Wrinch’s ‘intimate friend’ and ‘adoring lover’, so his status as an objective outsider is questionable. Later, in the 1950s, Neville proposed marriage to Wrinch, but her ardor had evaporated. It would have been her third marriage.” One wonders at the ugly undertones of such observations, rendered especially cruel given the actual events (Neville’s proposal came after Wrinch was widowed in her second marriage, to Otto Glaser — and the first marriage had ended in divorce under the sad circumstance of Nicholson’s mental illness).

So it is particularly gratifying to refute such nastiness with due credit. Senechal's model for Wrinch was clearly Rosalind Franklin, whose contributions to solving the structure of DNA were posthumously acknowledged and celebrated. But Wrinch did not have the benefit of getting it right. How, then, can we say she was treated unjustly when, in science, the point is correctness? A story like Franklin's makes her femininity feel heroic; Senechal's story about Wrinch makes it feel like an excuse.


Senechal casts about for a villain to play James Watson to Wrinch’s Franklin (his unflattering portrait of “Rosy” had for many years given her an unjust image). She makes vague attempts at denouncing a general air of sexism (she writes of “men plotting to down her” and having “never bothered to read her papers”), and unsupportive colleagues (“they ignored her contribution”), but ultimately settles on Linus Pauling for the part. Senechal blames him for “hound[ing] her [Wrinch] out of the field” by publishing an astringent refutation of cyclols, and goes on at length about Pauling’s monstrous ego, his uncivil tone, and how he would later be wrong about other things, like vitamin C and quasicrystals. (The suggestion here is that Pauling, the only winner of two unshared Nobel Prizes, and Wrinch deserve more comparable legacies, since Wrinch did contribute to other fields, albeit not through cyclols.)

Pauling, however, fits awkwardly into the role Senechal assigns him. He declared early on that he was “sympathetic to the type of speculative consideration [Wrinch] is carrying on now,” and “would like very much to have a chance to talk over these problems with her.” This was generous considering that he was wary of “the definite suggestion which she did make regarding protein structure, dealing with a type of polypeptide condensation involving hexagonal rings, is incorrect [...] from the consideration of available experimental facts.” There is scant evidence of malfeasance.

Vilification was a questionable strategy when Senechal's own purpose was to rescue her subject from that very fate. The Tanford history of protein discovery has Wrinch playing the siren, leading astray the great Irving Langmuir, a chemist of considerable reputation (he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1932) and Wrinch's staunchest supporter. The Wrinch-Langmuir collaboration gave cyclols their fame but also opened Wrinch up to more than her fair share of criticism. She wrote to E. H. Neville: “what angered everyone most was our attitude that WE [Langmuir and Wrinch] had started the proper treatment of [proteins]. Well I reckon we did [...] [M]ost of the anger is against Irving. But they don’t dare attack him, so I get it.” Surely such material should dissuade her biographer from more finger-pointing.

What Wrinch’s legacy should be remains murky, because it is clearly murky to Senechal herself. The point, as far as I could tell, was to find romantic undertones in Wrinch’s devotion to her idea and to argue for the injustice of forgetting such a life. Alas, this came at the expense of what would have been far more interesting: a convincing portrait of Dorothy Wrinch and of the complex human side of science-making.

Sadly, all the fine details in Senechal’s book — including the delicious, intimate kind — disintegrate into tedious factoids about a person for whom we feel little more than apathy. Wrinch knew C.P. Snow, had a distant connection with the suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, and at one point had dinner with Eleanor Roosevelt (though Franklin couldn’t make it). But what does all that matter? We never escape the suspicion that the story might not be worth telling. And yet, surely, there was a worthy story here. What a shame that Senechal missed it.


LARB Contributor

Boer Deng is a freelance writer in Washington D.C. She has written for The New Republic.


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