Dorothy Maud Wrinch

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. She stayed for a fourth year taking the moral sciences tripos so that she could study symbolic logic with Bertrand Russell. When 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."

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.[1]

Wrinch was a productive researcher who accumulated academic distinctions, e.g., in 1929 she was the first woman to receive an Oxford DSc. Nevertheless, her professional position was always insecure. In 1918 she was appointed to a lectureship in mathematics at University College London but after 2 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.

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.

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." 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."

Selected publications


Further reading

External links

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