Crystallography – The Secret Women in Science

Crystallography – The Secret Women in Science

When we think of the history of science, we imagine white men in lab coats, often with strange hairstyles, à la Doc from Back to the Future. But this is often with one exception, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was an X-Ray crystallographer, whose work was fundamental to the understanding of the structure of DNA. We often think of Rosalind Franklin, as an anomaly, a female pioneer, in a world of men. However, whilst she was undoubtedly remarkable, she was by no means alone. Her vital role has been recognised within the world of science, yet there are still many women’s works which are not equally recognised. These are the women that I shall endeavour to uncover in this article. 

Before we can meet these women, it would perhaps first be advantageous to establish any explanation of what crystallography is, whilst this article is not going to develop on the ins and outs of the scientific side of the field, it is useful background. In her oral history interview with historian David Zierler, crystallographer Jenny Glusker explains that in crystallography – 

“we’re looking at a crystal sitting on a diffractometer. Shooting an X-ray beam at it—at the crystal. The crystal’s standing there and you shoot the X-ray beam. And you have a detection system, which used to be film, but now it is electronic. And then you rotate it a little bit and you get all the—the diffraction pattern.” 

Now that is cleared up, we can meet the first of our four female crystallographers, Kathleen Lonsdale. Born in 1903, Lonsdale is the oldest of these four women, she arguably paved the way for future women follow in her footsteps. Lonsdale studied at Bedford College for Women which was part of the University of London. She was clearly bright, achieving the highest grade in her class for ten years, and being offered a job with her examiner, who was incidentally the father of crystallography, William Bragg in 1922. Lonsdale worked under the tutelage of Bragg, and then at the Royal Institute of London, where she confirmed the structure of benzene.  This had been perplexing scientists for decades. The previous model was named the Kekulé model, after the chemist August Kekulé, who had derived the structure for benzene. The model suggested that the bonds lengths were varied between longer single bonds, and shorter double bonds. The model which was confirmed by Lonsdale, fixed the issue of the excess carbon electrons, by showing a ring of delocalised electrons, within the hexagonal structure, as is pictured on the right, next to the Kekulé model. 

Figure 1- Kekulé Model   

Figure 2- Model as confirmed by Lonsdale 

Lonsdale’s work was also crucial to determining the differences between sigma and pi electron orbitals. This was fundamental to understanding the arrangement of electrons within an atom, and is also the subject which is he first thing most chemistry pupils learn in further education. Lonsdale was not just a pioneer in terms of her work on crystallography, she was also a pioneer in the world of female education. She was one of the first women to be confirmed into the Royal Society in 1945. After having worked from home in the 1930s on a series of short-term grants, she was considered so accomplished, according to Physics Today, that she was able to determine complexed atomic structures, without a laboratory. All the while she was shouldering most of the parenting duties. All this culminated with Lonsdale being appointed the first female tenured professor at UCL. 

Lonsdale was passionate about women’s, particularly married women’s, involvement within education. She pushed against those, such as Sir Alfred Yarrow, who argued that women should not be allowed in the laboratory as they always leave to get married. 

Illustration by Melanie Wu.

Similarly, pioneering in her approach towards female education is the next woman on our list, Dorothy Hodgkin. Born in 1910, Hodgkin is arguably the best known of these four women due to her being awarded a Nobel prize in 1964 for work on the solutions to the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12. Upon receiving the award, Hodgkin faced a great deal of sexism. The Daily Mail, for example, published her win under the headline of ‘Housewife wins Nobel.’ This is undoubtedly an atrocious headline, though is perhaps one that Hodgkin herself would not have opposed. Hodgkin paved the way for women to have both a family life, and a life in academia, – when asked to step down from her fellowship at Somerville college upon her marriage, Hodgkin refused. Not only that but upon having a child she became the first woman at Oxford to be awarded maternity leave. Hodgkin also had an active role with helping women within science, and she pushed for the nurturing of female scientists, such as Judith Glusker, who we will meet later, and Margaret Roberts, better known as Margaret Thatcher. As with Lonsdale, earlier, Hodgkin’s legacy lays strongly within science, but also more broadly within improving the position of women within science. 

Olga Kennard is the next crystallographer that I shall look at. Born in 1924, her work has been fundamental to furthering the discipline of crystallography. In 1965, she started her work collating structural data – her research focused on deciphering 3D structures and focused on her looking at different forms of DNA. Kennards most important work however would be her role in founding data bases, such as the CCDC, the Cambridge Crystallographic Data centre, and the Cambridge Structural Database, as well as the Protein Data Bank 

Jenny Glusker, who we have already met earlier, was born in 1931, and like Olga Kennard is still alive today. Glusker was a protein crystallographer who worked in the Dorothy Hodgkin’s lab and then later at the Institute for Cancer Research in Philadelphia – her work looked at the structure of the corrin ring, which is central to the structure of Vitamin B12. Like Hodgkin, Glusker studied at Somerville College in Oxford, and she would even go onto work under Hodgkin herself. In her oral history interview it is clear that it was Hodgkin who inspired Glusker to go into crystallography. Upon her obtaining her degree, Glusker said to Hodgkin, “Well, I’ll come and work with you for a while and learn how to do work with X-rays and crystals.” However, whilst Glusker was inspired by Hodgkin she also felt that she had to move to the US, firstly due to her marriage to an American and secondly as she felt that if she had have stayed in Oxford then she would “always have been Dorothy’s assistant.” The point remains that Hodgkin opened the door for many other women in her field. 

Upon her being awarded with an honorary degree from the University of Bristol, British crystallographer Judith Howard said, “it takes a very special breed of scientist to do this work… it is an area of science in which women dominate.” It has often been noted that the “features of this field that have attracted, retained and encouraged women have lessons to offer for the future of women’s progress in science more generally.” Yet it must be stated that one of the main things that enabled women to push into the realms of crystallography was the novelty of the discipline. As crystallography was only really developed after the First World War it was, according to Julia Sanz-Aparicio, “perhaps more free of traditional prejudices,” and that is said, whilst in no way minimising, the prejudices faced by these four women, and many other scientists as well. It has also been noted that the works of these talented women, contributed greatly to women being taken seriously within this field. 

Through this article, I hope that I have revealed that whilst Rosalind Franklin was highly impressive in her own right, she is not alone. There were, in fact, lots of women within this field, as demonstrated by the four that I have introduced. This list of women is by no means exhaustive, and extends beyond the British scientists that I have looked at. But what this limited survey does start to demonstrate, is that there are scientific fields within which women have historically been involved, and perhaps there is a lesson or two that other disciplines can take from the more equal environment of crystallography. 

Written by Sophie Whitehead 


Sanz-Aparicio, Julia. (2015). The legacy of women to crystallography. Arbor. 191. a216. 10.3989/arbor.2015.772n2002. 

Ferry, Georgina. “History: Women in Crystallography.” Nature (London) 505, no. 7485 (2014): 609–611. 

Kahr, Bart. “Broader Impacts of Women in Crystallography.” Crystal growth & design 15, no. 10 (2015): 4715–4730. 

Ward, Suzanna, and Matthew Lightfoot. “Celebrating Women in Crystallography through the Cambridge Structural Database.” Acta crystallographica. Section A, Foundations, and advances 74, no. a2 (2018): e160–e160. 

Wilson, Jennifer. “Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971): Her Early Career in X-Ray Crystallography.” Interdisciplinary science reviews 40, no. 3 (2015): 265–278. 

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