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.


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. She graduated in 1916 as a wrangler.[1] She stayed for a fourth year taking the Moral Sciences tripos so that she could study symbolic logic with Bertrand Russell. While Russell was in prison for his anti-war activities Wrinch acted as his unpaid research assistant and personal secretary. Later when Russell went to China he left her with the task of arranging the publication of Wittgenstein's Tractatus in England.

Wrinch's career divides into two periods. Between 1918 and 1932 she published 20 papers on pure and applied mathematics and 16 on scientific methodology and on the philosophy of science. Not surprisingly, Russell had a strong influence on her philosophical work. She also wrote a number of papers 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."[2]

In 1932 Wrinch 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 Needham, C. H. Waddington, J. D. Bernal and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. 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.[3]

Wrinch was a productive researcher who accumulated academic distinctions, e.g., in 1929 she was the first woman to receive an Oxford DSc.[1] Nevertheless, her professional position was always insecure. In 1918 she was appointed to a lectureship in mathematics at University College London but after two years she returned to Girton as a research fellow. In 1922 she married the mathematical physicist John William Nicholson. Nicholson was a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and Wrinch moved to Oxford and to a succession of temporary jobs for the next 16 years. 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 1937 Wrinch was granted a divorce on grounds of her husband's insanity.[1]

In 1939 Wrinch and her daughter moved to the United States. In 1941 she married Otto Charles Glaser, chairman of the biology department and vice-president of Amherst College. He arranged a visiting professorship 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.

She 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."[4] 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."[5]

Selected publications

  • "On Some Aspects of the Theory of Probability," Philosophical Magazine, 38, (1919), 715–731. (with Harold Jeffreys)
  • 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 philosophy publications[permanent dead link]
  • "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 Creese, Mary R.S. "Wrinch, Dorothy Maud (1894–1976)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 July 2005. 
  2. ^ Jeffreys, Harold (8 April 1976). "Dorothy Wrinch". Nature. 260: 564. doi:10.1038/260564a0. 
  3. ^ Tanford C (1997). "How protein chemists learned about the hydrophobic factor". Protein Sci. 6 (6): 1358. PMC 2143727Freely accessible. PMID 9194199. doi:10.1002/pro.5560060627. 
  4. ^ "New York Times". 15 February 1976. 
  5. ^ 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).

External links

  • "Dorothy Wrinch", Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College
  • O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., "Dorothy Maud Wrinch", MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, University of St Andrews .
  • Journal of Chemical Education: Dorothy Maud Wrinch
  • SJSU Virtual Museum: Dorothy Wrinch (has photograph)
  • Science World: Linus Pauling
  • Photograph of group including Wrinch from 1918 at the National Portrait Gallery
  • I Died for Beauty, Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science by Marjorie Senechal
  • Dorothy Maud Wrinch Papers: A Finding Aid Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.
  • For a list of Wrinch's degrees see Dorothy Wrinch on Mathematical Women in the British Isles, 1878–1940
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