Wrinch [married names Nicholson, Glaser], Dorothy Maud

(1894-1976), mathematician and theoretical biologist

by Mary R. S. Creese

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Wrinch [married names Nicholson, Glaser], Dorothy Maud (1894-1976), mathematician and theoretical biologist, was born on 13 September 1894 in Rosario, Argentina, the elder daughter of Hugh Edward Hart Wrinch, mechanical engineer, and his wife, Ada Minnie Souter. Growing up in Surbiton, Surrey, she attended Surbiton high school and from there went to Girton College, Cambridge, on a scholarship in 1913. She studied mathematics and moral sciences (mathematics tripos, part one, second class, 1914; part two, first class, 1916). She also played on Girton tennis teams and was active in college debates and in the Mathematical Club (of which she was president in 1916). In her fourth year of studies she concentrated on symbolic logic and attended Bertrand Russell's lectures (moral sciences tripos, part two, second class, 1917); she remained at Girton as a research scholar in the year 1917/18. In 1921 she was awarded a London DSc. For a time she kept close working and social contacts with Russell, and while he was in prison for his anti-war activities she supplied him with books and news.

Wrinch was appointed to a mathematics lectureship at University College, London, in 1918, but two years later returned to Girton as a Yarrow research fellow. In 1922 she married mathematical physicist John William Nicholson (1881-1955), then a fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and with his help obtained a tutorship at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Over the next sixteen years she held various research fellowships and lectureships or tutorships at the Oxford women's colleges. Her marriage, badly strained by Nicholson's deteriorating mental state, was dissolved in 1938. One daughter, Pamela, was born in 1927.

Dorothy Wrinch's early work was in mathematics, pure and applied, logic, and philosophy. Among her forty-two publications appearing between 1919 and 1929 were studies in classical analysis, classical mechanics, and mathematical physics (including work with her father and with her husband), papers in mathematical logic in the tradition of Whitehead and Russell, and joint studies with Harold Jeffreys on the theory of scientific method. In 1929 she received an Oxford DSc, the first awarded to a woman. She was an active member of the mathematics subsection of the British Association and for a number of years served on the International Commission on the Teaching of Mathematics.

By the late 1920s Wrinch's academic interests were expanding. A brief excursion into sociology resulted in her short book Retreat from Parenthood (1930, published under the pseudonym Jean Ayling). Reflecting her strong feminist outlook the work presented a broad plan of social reorganization to make child rearing more compatible with professional life. Her interests soon settled on biological questions, however, particularly the challenges in the new field of theoretical biology, where, she felt, the application of mathematical techniques would be critical for advances.

In 1932, having already familiarized herself with the basic principles of biology and chemistry by attending courses in Vienna and Paris, Wrinch became a founding member of the Biotheoretical Gathering. Among the particular interests of this group of Cambridge biochemists and crystallographers was the structure of proteins and chromosomes; the possibility of linear sequences of amino acids or nucleic acids being involved in the genetic process was already being considered. In her first publications in the field (1934, 1936) she proposed possible models for chromosomes at the molecular level; although she was working from the incorrect picture of the overall structure then commonly held, she made the valuable suggestion that chromosome specificity was linked to the specific sequencing of constituent groups in the chain structure. With help from her friend, Oxford chemist and crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot, she went on to consider the problem of the structure of globular proteins and here produced one of the most elegant hypotheses among the early attempts to find a basic plan in these giant molecules. Following an initial proposal that the chains of linked amino acids that constitute proteins could polymerize to form a mosaic sheet network to which she gave the name 'cyclol', she suggested (1937) that the sheets would fold into series of closed geometric figures, such as octahedra, built of definite, computable numbers of amino acid residues. The theory provided an attractive explanation for many recent observations on proteins, and when it was demonstrated (1937) that, by an extraordinary coincidence, the number of amino acid residues in egg albumen was consistent with her model, she considered her proposal strikingly verified.

Dorothy Wrinch's work was of great interest to chemists and biologists at the 1938 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on proteins; her tremendous enthusiasm contributed much to its favourable reception. Considerable controversy soon followed, however, with eminent scientists, including Nobel prizewinner Irwin Langmuir, taking sides. At times Dorothy Wrinch felt unfairly treated by some in the chemical community; her arguments with chemist Linus Pauling were particularly heated. However, in the years after the Second World War chemical and crystallographic evidence gradually proved that proteins do not have the cyclol structure. Nevertheless, Dorothy Wrinch's bold hypothesis, presented at a time when experimental evidence was sparse, was valuable in that it triggered widespread interest in proteins; further, her detailed and explicitly geometrical argument powerfully stressed the idea that complex protein structures had to be considered in terms of detailed molecular architecture. Her methodology was pioneering.

With the coming of the Second World War, Wrinch had moved to the United States, partly for her daughter's safety. After a year as a visiting fellow in the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, she obtained in 1941 a visiting professorship at three small Massachusetts colleges, Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke. Her appointment was arranged largely by Otto Charles Glaser (1880-1951), chairman of the biology department and vice-president of Amherst College, whom she married on 20 August 1941. From 1942, for almost three decades, she held research positions at Smith, where she supervised a few graduate students, conducted seminars, and continued her studies--further work on protein structure and the development and application to proteins of techniques for interpreting X-ray patterns of complicated molecular structures.

Despite the handicaps of losing her close contact with Dorothy Crowfoot, generally increasing intellectual isolation, and gradual reduction of research funding, Wrinch continued to publish at an impressive rate, often bringing out seven or eight papers a year. Her monograph Fourier Transforms and Structure Factors (1946) remained in use for decades, and she made important contributions to extending methods of analysis of the sets of points which in X-ray diffraction patterns represent crystal structure. For a time she was a consultant to John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in his pioneering work on the development of computers, the analysis of complex protein X-ray data being considered a major application. In the summers she lectured at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, an institution with which Otto Glaser was closely connected and where she had many friends. The main focus of her work, however, was the presentation and defence of her cyclol theory; she doggedly ignored the accumulating evidence against it. Her two books, Chemical Aspects of the Structure of Small Peptides (1960) and Chemical Aspects of Polypeptide Chain Structure and the Cyclol Theory (1965), presented the history of protein chemistry as she saw it.

A controversial figure in early research in molecular biology, bright, ambitious, hardworking, and adventurous, Dorothy Wrinch was for much of her life a restless outsider, something of an exile in her American environment, who took up difficult problems in a field in which she, a mathematician by training, had insufficient background. Possessing a sharp wit and a dynamic, forceful personality, she was not always easy to get along with. Nevertheless, she was also an attractive woman and an inspired teacher who set high standards. After Otto Glaser's death she lived on the Smith College campus, moving to Wood's Hole, Massachusetts, on her retirement in 1971. She died in Falmouth Hospital, Falmouth, Massachusetts, of pneumonia, on 11 February 1976 and was cremated two days later at Forest Hills crematory, Boston. Her ashes were taken to Wood's Hole.


P. G. Abir-Am, 'Synergy or clash: disciplinary and marital strategies in the career of mathematical biologist Dorothy Wrinch', Uneasy careers and intimate lives: women in science, 1789-1979, ed. P. G. Abir-Am and D. Outram (1987), 239-80
P. Laszlo, 'Dorothy Wrinch: the mystique of cyclol theory or the story of a mistaken scientific theory', Molecular correlates of biological concepts (1986), vol. 34A of Comprehensive biochemistry, chap. 13
D. Crowfoot Hodgkin and H. Jeffreys, Nature, 260 (1976), 564
M. Senechal, ed., Structures of matter and patterns in science, inspired by the life and work of Dorothy Wrinch, 1894-1976: proceedings of a symposium [Smith College, Northampton, MA 1977] (1980)
M. M. Julian, 'Women in crystallography', Women of science: righting the record, ed. G. Kass-Simon and P. Farnes (1990), 335-77
M. M. Julian, 'Dorothy Wrinch and a search for the structure of proteins', Journal of Chemical Education, 61 (1984), 890-92
d. cert. [from Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts]
The Times (8 March 1976)
M. Senechal, 'A prophet without honor. Dorothy Wrinch, scientist, 1894-1976', Smith Alumnae Quarterly (April 1977), 18-23
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, Archives
Girton Cam.
A. G. Debus and others, eds., World who's who in science (1968)
Who was who in America, 6 (1976)
'Glaser, Otto Charles', American men of science, ed. J. Cattell, 10th edn (1960)
C. W. Carey, 'Wrinch, Dorothy Maud', ANB, 24.68-71
private information (2004) [Lady Jeffreys]
d. cert.

Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, Sophia Smith collection, papers, notes, corresp., molecular models, etc. |  Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Wrinch-Nicholson archives
U. Sussex, letters to J. G. Crowther

C. H. Waddington, photograph, 1933, repro. in Abir-Am, 'Synergy or clash', following p. 240
photograph, 1935, repro. in Abir-Am, 'Synergy or clash', following p. 260
photographs, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts
photographs, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts; repro. in Senechal, ed., Structures of matter and patterns in science

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