Although April 1st has certain associations, the subject of my writing today was no fool! Born in county Kildare, Kathleen Lonsdale was a chemistry pioneer, a parent, a pacifist, and a lot more besides.
Crystals and medicine
Crystallography is concerned with investigating various materials at a molecular level. It reveals how chemicals behave and interact with each other; knowledge that is helpful in many scientific fields.
Kathleen’s work as a crystallographer (she explored atomic structure) had an impact on our world long after her death on April 1st 1971.
Mothering and other matters
Those of us who are parents know the challenges of working while simultaneoulsy nurturing small children. It seems that Kathleen had an aptitude for concentration with a capital ‘C’, because some of her most important research into benzene was conducted at home in 1929 with a new baby! Later, she even managed to focus on scientific research while she was in prison. More about that later.
Mystery and inquiry
Kathleen had a desire to apply her amazing mind and life’s work to medicine. I can relate to that feeling of wanting to find practical uses for research and academia; my own MA investigation is focused on medical sociology and public health. I was wrong to think that it would simply mean reading the science around yoga; it goes much deeper than that and I find it enjoyable, if not always easy.
Research is not about parroting someone else, like translating a story from another language and leaving at that. Producing new insights is similar to art-making, except that experiments happen through methods instead of materials. It requires critical thinking and Kathleen put it well when she said ” If we knew all the answers there would be no point in carrying out scientific research. Because we do not, it is stimulating, exciting, challenging”. I think we could learn from her words and apply them to life in general, not just to research.
Actions speak louder than words
Although she was a pacifist, Kathleen Lonsdale was not afraid of a challenge, nor was she someone who sat on the fence. As an activist she sought to educate people in politics about disarmament, nonviolent resistance, and settling disputes on the basis of justice instead of using armed force.
When world war two broke out she made quite a statement in support of peace by refusing to sign up for civil defence duties as was required by law (even though she could have signed up and avoided service), so she was fined. She would not pay and in 1943 she was sentenced to serve one month in Holloway prison, which she found tough.
The governer allowed scientific papers and some instruments to be deliered so that after a day of physical work Kathleen could pursue her passions in the evenings. She reported that she managed to do “about seven hours each day of really concentrated scientific work.”
Other prisoners told her about their lives and many of them treated her with kindness. Never one to waste time or an opportunity to contribute to society, later Kathleen shared her experience of incarceration and campaigned for prison reform in England and Russia. Much of what she recommended was implemented, and she also became a prison visitor.
1950s inequalities and 2021 realities
In her 1956 publication, Is Peace Possible?, Kathleen Lonsdale wrote about removing the causes of conflict and the need to address the distribution of wealth and resources between richer countries and those that were referred to as “third world”. She identified population growth as a major threat to world peace as well as to health and living standards, all of which was radical for the 50s. She became the first woman president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and attained many other ‘firsts’ for women scientists during her lifetime. We can’t all achieve things at the level of Kathleen Lonsdale, but we can surely be inspired by her.
Writing and design by Kathryn Crowley 2021. Click here to return to main page: (artyshe.com)https://artyshe.com/
William Reville UCC / The Irish Times.