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I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science

Marjorie Senechal
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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While this book is about the life of Dorothy Wrinch and her role in mathematics applied to the structure of complex molecules, it is even more about the culture of science and how became more diverse in the twentieth century. There is no question that Wrinch was a superb scientist, but she was also stubborn and often very difficult to deal with, refusing to reject her theories when the experimental evidence demonstrated otherwise.

The story of Wrinch’s life includes some of the most powerful figures of science. She knew Bertrand Russell very well (there are even reports that they had an affair) People such as Albert Einstein, D’arcy Thompson and Linus Pauling played significant roles in her personal and professional life. Being strong and stubborn personalities, Wrinch and Pauling conducted a rigorous argument over chemical laws that lasted for years and extended into the personal.

Wrinch’s life was at a time when women scientists that had a lifelong career ceased being an oddity. Earlier, the norm was that when a women scientist got married and had a child she became a wife and mother. Later, it became at least possible for a woman to continue her scientific pursuits postpartum, although professional women still find it difficult to reconcile the professional and mommy tracks. Wrinch was a wife as well as a mother, yet she divorced her first husband when his mental illness led to his being institutionalized. Senechal makes it a point to explain how powerful college presidents were back then; professors sometimes had to get their approval to make life changes such as getting a divorce. The ladies auxiliary of the wives of the professors could also be a powerful force on campus in those times, which could both help and hinder a female academic.

This telling of the story of the life of Dorothy Wrinch is occasionally disjointed and contains some short tangential bits, yet it is a deep story about how science changed for the better as females began to be more numerous in the ranks of its practitioners. Wrinch was a strong personality and this both aided and hindered her. It was an asset when it gave her the strength to continue her career but it was a hindrance when she refused to concede her obvious errors. In this frank look at her life, you will learn both sides of this pioneering woman. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

Part I Dorothy Wrinch
Chapter 1. Prologue
Chapter 2. Culture clash at Cold Spring Harbor
Chapter 3. Symmetry Festival
Chapter 4. Dot
Part II Logics
Chapter 5. The Wrangler
Chapter 6. Dear Mr. Russell
Chapter 7. The Summation of Pleasures
Chapter 8. Scientific method
Part III Biology in Transition
Chapter 9. The Spicules of Sponges
Chapter 10. Homes are Hell
Chapter 11. Metamorphoses
Chapter 12. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest
Notes and References for Part III
Part IV Proteins and the Imagination
Chapter 13. Hornet Buzz
Chapter 14. The Cyclol Model
Chapter 15. What Is She Doing Here?
Chapter 16. "Linus and Dorothy," the Opera, with Talkback
Part V The Rosetta Stone of the Solid State
Chapter 17. Crystals
Chapter 18. X-rays and Insulin
Chapter 19. Structure factors
Chapter 20. Amherst College Wife
Part VI I Died for Beauty
Chapter 21. The Sequel
Chapter 22. Strange Doings at Sandoz
Chapter 23. Swan Song
Chapter 24. Epilogue
Cast of Characters
Notes and References