Dorothy Maud Wrinch

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Dorothy Maud Wrinch in 1921

Dorothy Maud Wrinch (12 September 1894 – 11 February 1976; married names Nicholson, Glaser) was a mathematician and biochemical theorist best known for her attempt to deduce protein structure using mathematical principles. She was a champion of the controversial 'cyclol' hypothesis for the structure of proteins.


Dorothy Wrinch was born in Rosario, Argentina, the daughter of Hugh Edward Hart Wrinch, an engineer, and Ada Souter. The family returned to England and Dorothy grew up in Surbiton, near London. She attended Surbiton High School and in 1913 entered Girton College, University of Cambridge to read mathematics. Wrinch often attended meetings of the Heretics Club run by CK Ogden, and it was through a 1914 lecture organised by Ogden that she first heard Bertrand Russell speak.[1] She graduated in 1916 as a wrangler.[2]

For the academic year 1916-1917, Wrinch took the Cambridge Moral Sciences tripos and studied mathematical logic with Russell in London. In December she was invited to Garsington Manor, the home of Russell's then mistress Ottoline Morell, and there encountered Clive Bell and other Bloomsbury Group members, and in 1917 she introduced Russell to Dora Black who would later become his second wife. From 1917 Wrinch was funded by Girton College as a research student, officially supervised by G.H. Hardy in Cambridge but in practice by Russell in London.[1] In May 1918 Russell was imprisoned for his anti-war activities, and Wrinch assisted with his philsophical work, and later when Russell went to China he left her with the task of arranging the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus in England.[citation needed].

In London Wrinch attended the Aristotelian Society, including a debate between D'Arcy Thompson and John Scott Haldane on the nature of physics, biology and psychology, and she became a friend of Thompson. Wrinch spoke to the Society herself on the 'summation of pleasures, and through the Society she encountered Harold Jeffreys and Raphael Demos. In the autumn of 1918 Wrinch registered for graduate study onn asymptotic expansions with the applied mathematician John Nicholson at King's College London, started to teach at University College, and continued to work with Jeffreys on the philosophy of scientific method. She moved into a flat in Mecklenburgh Square owned by Russell's then mistress Colette O'Neil. In 1920 Girton awarded Wrinch a four-year Yarrow Research Fellowship with the freedom to work on any area of her choice. In 1920 she was awarded an MSc and in 1921 a DSc by the University of London. Wrinch moved to Oxford in 1922 upon her marriage, where she had a succession of temporary jobs for the next 16 years.[1] in 1929 she was the first woman to receive an Oxford DSc.[2]

Wrinch's first paper was a 1917 defence of Russell's philosophy,[1] and between 1918 and 1932 she published 20 papers on pure and applied mathematics and 16 on scientific methodology and on the philosophy of science. The papers she wrote with Harold Jeffreys on scientific method these formed the basis of his 1931 book Scientific Inference. In the Nature obituary Jeffreys wrote, "I should like to put on record my appreciation of the substantial contribution she made to [our joint] work, which is the basis of all my later work on scientific inference."[3]

From about 1932 Wrinch shifted towards theoretical biology. She was one of founders of the Biotheoretical Gathering (aka the 'Theoretical Biology Club'), an inter-disciplinary group that sought to explain life by discovering how proteins work. Also involved were Joseph Henry Woodger, Joseph and Dorothy Needham, C. H. Waddington, J. D. Bernal, Karl Popper and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.[4] From then on Wrinch could be described as a theoretical biologist. She developed a model of protein structure, which she called the "cyclol" structure. The model generated considerable controversy and was attacked by the chemist Linus Pauling. In these debates Wrinch's lack of training in chemistry was a great weakness. By 1939, evidence had accumulated that the model was wrong but Wrinch continued working on it. However, experimental work by Irving Langmuir done in collaboration with Wrinch to validate her ideas catalysed the principle of the Hydrophobic effect being the driving force for protein folding.[5]

In 1939 Wrinch moved to the United States. She had a variety of teaching positions at three small Massachusetts colleges, Amherst College, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College. From 1942 until she retired in 1971 Wrinch held research positions at Smith.

Personal life

Prior to 1918 Wrinch's Cambridge tutor GN Watson had proposed to her but the feeling was not mutual and she had to ask her father to explain this to Watson; nevertheless Watson later recommended Wrinch as his replacement lecturer at University College London. Around the postwar time of her intellectual closeness to Russell, Wrinch may have had a romantic connection with his brother Frank and probably did have an unhappy attachment with another of his disciples, Raphael Demos. Sources differ on whether Wrinch wanted a romantic relationship with Russell.[1][6] She was for some years a close intellectual companion of Harold Jeffreys, and some contemporary observers thought them engaged. It may have been the breaking of their engagement that encouraged Jeffreys to enter psychoanalysis,[1] which was at the time fashionable in Cambridge.[7]

In 1922 Wrinch married her graduate supervisor at King's College London, the mathematical physicist John William Nicholson. The examination for her DSc in 1921 had, unusually, an additional referee, which may have been because of perceptions of a relationship between the two of them. Nicholson was a graduate of Owens College Manchester and also a Cambridge Wrangler. In 1921 he was elected into a Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford. The couple had one child, Pamela, born in 1927. Wrinch's book on parenthood, dedicated to Russell, was a venture into sociology rather than a manual of child-care. Nicholson's mental health deteriorated in the late 1920s, and in 1930 he was certified as mentally ill and confined in the Warneford Hospital until his death in 1955. In 1937 Wrinch was granted a divorce on grounds of her husband's insanity.[2] From 1930 Wrinch was close emotionally and intellectually to the mathematician Eric Neville in a friendship which lasted until 1961.

In 1939 Wrinch and her daughter moved to the United States, partly because the chancellor of Oxford University and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax advised her she would be most useful to the war effort by research and lecturing there.[1] In 1941 she married Otto Charles Glaser, chairman of the biology department and vice-president of Amherst College, and it was in part through that him that she was able to obtain teaching positions. In 1944 Glaser was forced to resign as chairman because he had allowed his research assistant to spend time working for Wrinch. Glaser retired in 1948 and died in 1951.[1]

Dorothy Wrinch died in Falmouth, Massachusetts on 11 February 1976.

Crowfoot Hodgkin wrote in Wrinch's obituary that she was "a brilliant and controversial figure who played a part in the beginnings of much of present research in molecular biology."[8] On a more personal level, Crowfoot Hodgkin wrote, "I like to think of her as she was when I first knew her, gay, enthusiastic and adventurous, courageous in face of much misfortune and very kind."[9]

Selected publications

  • "On Some Aspects of the Theory of Probability," Philosophical Magazine, 38, (1919), 715–731. (with Harold Jeffreys)
  • "On the Structure of Scientific Inquiry', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 21, (1920-21), 181-210.
  • The Retreat from Parenthood London : K. Paul, Trench, Trübner 1930 (as Jean Ayling)
  • Fourier transforms and structure factors; American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction. 1946
  • Chemical aspects of the structure of small peptides; an introduction. 1960.
  • Chemical aspects of polypeptide chain structures and the cyclol theory 1965.
  • List of Wrinch's publications
  • "Selected papers of Dorothy Wrinch, from the Sophia Smith Collection," in "Structures of Matter and Patterns in Science, inspired by the work and life of Dorothy Wrinch, 1894–1976, The Proceedings of a Symposium held at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts 28–30 September 1977, Schenkman Publishing Company, 1980.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Marjorie., Senechal, (2012). I died for beauty : Dorothy Wrinch and the cultures of science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0199732590. OCLC 785874210. 
  2. ^ a b c Creese, Mary R.S. "Wrinch, Dorothy Maud (1894–1976)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 July 2005. 
  3. ^ Jeffreys, Harold (8 April 1976). "Dorothy Wrinch". Nature. 260: 564. doi:10.1038/260564a0. 
  4. ^ Cohen, Alan (2005). "Wrinch, Dorothy Maud". In Brown, Stuart. Dictionary of Twentieth Century British Philosophers. Bristol: Thoemmes. p. 1183. ISBN 184371096X. 
  5. ^ Tanford C (1997). "How protein chemists learned about the hydrophobic factor". Protein Sci. 6 (6): 1358. doi:10.1002/pro.5560060627. PMC 2143727Freely accessible. PMID 9194199. 
  6. ^ Abir-Am, P.G. (1987). ""Synergy or clash: Disciplinary and marital strategies in the career of the mathematical biologist Dorothy M. Wrinch (1894-1976)' in & D. Outram (eds.), Uneasy careers and intimate lives, Women in Science, 1789-1979". 
  7. ^ 1949-2015,, Forrester, John,. Freud in Cambridge. Cameron, Laura, 1966-. Cambridge, United Kingdom. ISBN 0521679958. OCLC 974915127. 
  8. ^ "New York Times". 15 February 1976. 
  9. ^ Crowfoot Hodgkin, Dorothy (8 April 1976). "Dorothy Wrinch". Nature. 260: 564. doi:10.1038/260564a0. 

Further reading

  • P. G. Abir-Am, 'Synergy or Clash: Disciplinary and Marital Strategies in the Career of Mathematical Biologist Dorothy Wrinch', In Uneasy Careers and Intimate Lives, Women in Science 1789–1979, P. G. Abir-Am & D. Outram (Eds), Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1987; pp 239–280.
  • Mary R. S. Creese, ‘Wrinch, Dorothy Maud (1894–1976)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 11 July 2005.
  • Charles W. Carey, Jr., "Wrinch, Dorothy Maud"; American National Biography Online, February 2000. Accessed 11 July 2005.
  • John Jones, "Nicholson, John William (1881–1955)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 11 July 2005.
  • David Howie, Interpreting Probability: Controversies and Developments in the Early Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2002. (Chapter 4 describes the Wrinch-Jeffreys collaboration.)
  • Marjorie Senechal, "A Prophet without Honor: Dorothy Wrinch, Scientist, 1894–1976," Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Vol. 68 (1977), 18–23.
  • Marjorie Senechal, I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013.
  • Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds, Nature's Robots: A History of Proteins, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001. (Chapters 10 and 12 discuss Wrinch's cyclol theory.)
  • Patrick Coffey, Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry, Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-532134-0 (Prologue, Chapter 9, and the Epilogue discuss Wrinch).

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