Discover more about the challenges Lonsdale faced in her work as a scientist during the war, highlighted with letters from our archives by the Ri's Document Manager Jane Harrison.
1943 was an eventful year for Kathleen Lonsdale: she was (unofficially) the principal scientific researcher at the Ri while the Director, Sir Henry Dale, was busy with the war effort. As a mother of small children she was exempt from civil defence duties, however, due to her beliefs as a Quaker and pacifist she made the point of refusing to sign up and spent a month in Holloway prison for this. In this same year she was nominated as a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1945 became one of the first two women to be elected.
Kathleen Lonsdale, nee Yardley, may not be as well known as some of her male colleagues, but she was a key figure in the growth of X-ray crystallography as a discipline. She was an excellent experimenter in the tradition of Michael Faraday and made several of her own discoveries but also spent much of her time working to provide standardised mathematical tables for crystal structures, this work was difficult and unglamorous but underlies many important discoveries in the structure of molecules. Lonsdale was also influential in the broader scientific world as the first woman appointed a tenured professor at UCL and the first woman elected president of the British Association.
Her work ethic was undeniable: alongside her scientific career Lonsdale was active in prison reform and various pacifist causes as well as bringing up three children. Even at the end of her life, in hospital with bone marrow cancer, she worked 13 hour days to complete her final book.
These two letters were written on the same day, 13th November 1943, following a trip to lecture at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. The first is from Lonsdale to Sir Lawrence Bragg, head of the Cavendish, and the second from Bragg to Sir Henry Dale, Director at the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory (DFRL) and Lonsdale’s superior. They give an interesting insight into Lonsdale’s view of herself and her research and how she was seen by others at a key point in her career.
Kathleen Lonsdale to Sir Lawrence Bragg
'Davy Faraday Research Laboratory
The Royal Institution
21 Albemarle Street
Dear Sir Lawrence,
It was a great pleasure to me to come and see you all at the Cavendish this week, as it always is.
I am a little uneasy, however, lest I should have given you the impression, in our short talk, that I was in any way complaining of the conditions here. I consider myself fortunate, all things being considered, to be able to go on working in such pleasant surroundings.
It is true, however, that the work I have been doing in the past few years seems to open up such wide possibilities of research along various lines that it is sometimes exasperating, to say the least of it, to have to leave one exciting problem after another simply because life is too short and apparatus too scarce for me to tackle them all alone. I should also like to write up the work on crystal dynamics in book form (probably with Professor [Max] Bonn) but I feel that until we have more quantitive intensity measurements made to compare with theory, such a book would be incomplete and unsatisfactory. Prof. Bonn feels the same about it; but I haven’t the equipment or time to do it. I have found, also that my recent work has increased my scientific correspondence so much that it is difficult to keep pace with it unless I leave my original work, much more than I like, in order to see to it. It is a favourite comment of my colleagues that I obviously need a secretary!
There is no reason, however, why I should keep all the field to myself. I would be only too pleased to make suggestions for research work that could and should be tackled (perhaps after the war) by anyone who has apparatus and opportunity to do it. I am quite certain that I could keep several people going, here or elsewhere. But I am not much of a mechanic myself, and without adequate engineering and maintenance assistance I should be quite incapable of running a powerful tube here, even if the Managers were willing to instal another.
I shall be very glad to see you when you are next in London, and to tell you, perhaps, of some of my scientific castles in the air.
Yours very sincerely,
Sir Lawrence Bragg to Sir Henry Dale
'PERSONAL 13th November, 43
Many thanks for your letter. I will put down the dates you mention for my lectures.
Mrs. Lonsdale’s visit was a great success. She gave an excellent lecture on Thursday to our Colloquium. I did not hear her evening lecture, but I believe that was also very good. I had a most interesting talk with her next morning. She has enough ideas to keep several people working, and it is a great pity that her research cannot go ahead fast, but that, I suppose, is inevitable in war time.
I think she has a really fine line of her own, however, and somehow we must arrange that she be given full scope after the war. Whether you can do this at the R.I. I do not know; it depends on future policy there. I quite understand that you do not want to overload the programme with crystal work. I am coming to see Mrs. Lonsdale on Tuesday afternoon, the 16th, and hope I may find you in. I would like to have a talk with you about her work.
[W.T.] Astbury and I want to put up Mrs. Lonsdale for the Royal Society this time. I wish you were able to support her. Her record of papers is very impressive.
Lonsdale had worked at the DFRL in William Bragg’s team of Crystallographers for the better part of 20 years, and so would have known his son Lawrence quite well. After Bragg’s unexpected death in 1942 the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory was in a state of transition: the new director, Henry Dale, was not a crystallographer although due to his commitments to the war effort, he allowed those already based here to continue on if they wished for the time being. The war also meant that resources were scarce and broken equipment could not be replaced, you can see this in the headed paper Lonsdale uses: instead of new paper being printed Bragg’s name is simply crossed out and Dale’s printed below.
The sense of Lonsdale’s energy comes across strongly, she sees possibilities for many different lines of research and also wants to write a book on crystal dynamics but she is limited in her research time by the volume of her scientific correspondence. While she appreciates being able to stay at the Ri she is visibly chafing under the restrictions of the situation of being a lone researcher with very little technical support: ‘it is sometimes exasperating…to have to leave one exciting problem after another simply because life is too short and apparatus too scarce for me to tackle them all alone’.
The future direction of the DFRL is still to be decided and Lonsdale is obviously unsure whether Crystallography will be part of it, given the lack of support and resources, however she has many ideas she would like to see investigated. She talks of making suggestions for other’s to research but it is unclear whether when she states that ‘I am quite certain that I could keep several people going, here or elsewhere’ she is hinting that she would like to take on assistants as it was still extremely rare for women to lead research teams.
Bragg's letter to Dale
Bragg writes to Dale to let him know how the visit went and to express his support for Lonsdale. He acknowledges that she has ‘enough ideas to keep several people working’ and that her own research is good but that the war time conditions mean that progress is slow. He is aware that crystallography may not be part of the long-term plan at the DFRL but remarks that ‘somehow we must arrange that she be given full scope after the war’.
He is also keen to nominate Lonsdale for fellowship of the Royal Society: at this point several women had been nominated but none successfully elected. Dale was the current President of the Royal Society as well as the director of the DFRL, but it is clear that there are politics at play: it is interesting that Bragg writes ‘I wish you were able’ to support Lonsdale rather than ‘I wish you would’.
These letters show the complex situation of being both a woman in science and a scientist in a period of upheaval. Lonsdale certainly had support from some of the field, but it was not universal, and while the war time conditions made it hard for research in general, it is clear that she had little practical assistance.
However, around this time things began to change: Lonsdale was elected one of the first female Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945, along with Marjory Stephenson, although this was after a postal vote on the subject. She went on to be appointed Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Crystallography at UCL in 1949, finally given the scope for a research team and the chance to investigate some of her ‘scientific castles in the air’.
Discover more about Kathleen Lonsdale's life and work in a fun and engaging play written and directed by Sian Ní Mhuirí and hosted my the Royal Institution this May.
PhD student, Naomi Heffer, reflects on her experiences working as the Ri’s digital intern.
Posted to Behind the scenes on27th March 2020