Crystallographer, Quaker, Pacifist, & Trailblazing Woman of Science: Kathleen Lonsdale’s Christian Life “Lived Experimentally”
By Kylie Miller and Stephen M. Contakes
Towards the beginning of 1943 Kathleen Lonsdale, a small forty year old research assistant in crystallography at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, entered Holloway Prison in London. The Second World War was in full swing and Lonsdale, a committed pacifist, had refused to register for civil defense duties. She did this in full knowledge that she would have been found exempt and in spite of her belief in the justness of the British cause. Speaking later of this seemingly puzzling episode Kathleen later noted that
“…reason told me that I was a fool, that I was risking my job and my career, than an isolated example could do no good, that it was a futile gesture since even if I did register my three small children would exempt me. But reason was fighting a losing battle. I had wrestled in prayer and I knew beyond all doubt that I must refuse to register, that those who believed that war was the wrong way to fight evil must stand out against it however much they stood alone, and that I and mine must take the consequences. …When you make a vital decision about behavior you cannot sit on the fence.”[i]
Indeed, Lonsdale saw her decision to go to prison rather than compromise her pacifist beliefs as part of the “adventurous experiment” of faith—“the Christian life, lived experimentally.”[ii] In this instance she was vindicated; her experience in Holloway Prison was a turning point in her life, a life that was already remarkable in numerous respects.
Kathleen Lonsdale was born Kathleen Yardley in Southern Ireland in 1903, during a time of great excitement and optimism over the promise of science and technology. Slowly the doors of scientific opportunity also began to open for women, but Kathleen nudged the door wide open. As the youngest of ten children born to an agnostic English postmaster father and devout Baptist Scottish mother, Lonsdale’s prospects for higher education seemed slim, especially since her hard-drinking and aloof father kept the family relatively impoverished, a problem only exacerbated after her parents separated when Kathleen was five. Fortunately, as the youngest child, Kathleen was spared the necessity of working to provide for the family’s expenses. Thus, she continued her education with a scholarship to the local county County High School for girls, and made regular trips across town to the boy’s school in order to take courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics.[iii] Her intellectual acumen was such that the county education officials wanted her to try for a place at Cambridge. However, Kathleen enrolled at the Bedford College for Women, part of the University of London, with intent to study mathematics. Despite discouragement from many, including her own advisor, she later switched to physics as she preferred its experimental work and had good relationships with the physics students and faculty.
Kathleen’s exceptional grasp of physics drew attention from the pioneering crystallographer William Henry Bragg who offered her a research assistantship in his group at University College, London. There she dove into the emerging field of X-ray crystallography, specializing in the study of organic compounds. While working with Bragg, Kathleen met another important figure, her future husband and fellow Ph.D. student, Thomas Lonsdale. After the couple married in 1927, they moved to Leeds where Thomas had been offered a post conducting silk research. Though it may appear as if Kathleen’s career was destined to take a back seat to her husband’s, Thomas valued and enthusiastically supported Kathleen’s. In fact, when Kathleen thought about the conditions which lead to her success, she noted:
“For a woman, and especially a married woman with children, to become a first class scientist, she must first of all choose, or have chosen, the right husband. He must recognize her problems and be willing to share them. If he is really domesticated, so much the better. Then she must really be a good organizer and be pretty ruthless in keeping to her schedule, no matter if the heavens fall. She must be able to do with very little sleep, because her working week will be twice as long as the average trades unionist’s. She must go against all her early training and not care if she is regarded as a little peculiar. She must be willing to accept additional responsibility, even if she feels she has more than enough. But above all, she must learn to concentrate in any available moment and not require ideal conditions in which to do so.”[iv]
Indeed, Kathleen was not idle at Leeds. She took up research in the department of Physics where she accomplished the work for which she is best known. Using hexamethylbenzene crystals provided by Christopher Ingold, Kathleen demonstrated that the benzene ring was planar and hexagonal, thereby ending a longstanding discussion about the benzene ring’s geometry. It was also at Leed’s that the Lonsdale’s first child, Jane, was born in 1929; Kathleen diligently carried out some of the crystallographic calculations on benzene derivatives while at home with the new baby.
Kathleen did additional work from home after their family returned to London when Thomas was offered a government research post there. Specifically, she derived the structure factor formula for all 230 space groups—an achievement that undergirds contemporary crystal structure determination. In fact, Kathleen was following up on her[v] earlier recognition that it is much easier to solve crystal structures if the space group is determined first, an insight that is currently embodied in the algorithms used by computer for the solution and refinement of single crystal X-ray data. Kathleen’s crystallographic work also enabled her to lead preparation of the first International Tables for the Determination of Crystal Structures. Because the first edition was not entirely exhaustive, she remarkably supplemented it with a hand-written volume of structure factor and electron density formula.[vi] Her Ph.D. advisor William Bragg supported her in these endeavors, first by securing funds to enable her to employ household help and later by employing her as a research fellow in his group at the Royal Institution.
Lonsdale’s time as a student and researcher in London and Leeds was also the occasion of religious searching. She was raised a strict fundamentalist Baptist by her devout mother, but, because there was no local Baptist congregation, she attended the Church of Ireland and went to a Methodist Sunday School. Despite her traditional Baptist confession of faith and baptism, she had difficulty accepting key dogmas like the Virgin Birth, Incarnation, and Resurrection. At the time she was skeptical about claims that seemed so far removed from everyday experience and felt uneasy over accepting religious dogma regarding authority. She was unable to become an agnostic, however, on account of the:
“…difficulty I experienced in finding any philosophy of life that could satisfy my longing to know the truth, and the fact that I preferred those of my acquaintances and those of whom I had read who were professed Christians, to those who were antagonistic to religion. Indeed, I greatly respected the teachings of Jesus and admired his life.”[vii]
Later, after Kathleen’s experiences as a crystallographer had given her a better understanding of the power and limits of science’s ability to uncover truth, miracles no longer troubled her. Nevertheless she never seems to have warmed to orthodox creedal understandings of the Christian doctrine, as she personally felt they were inconsistent with what she saw to be the general tenor of Christ’s life and teachings. Indeed, Kathleen Lonsdale’s faith emphasized the moral character and teachings of Jesus as applied to practical Christian living. As she later noted in an address to a meeting of Quaker Elders:
“What attracts me to Jesus is his life, the loving spirit that he showed in giving some of his deepest teachings to the woman of Samaria who was despised on three counts, that she was a woman, that she was a Samaritan and that she was living an immoral life: his tolerance in taking a Samaritan as the hero of his story of the good neighbor…the courage that he showed in going to a cruel death when he realized that was where his public teaching, if he continued it, would take him.“[viii]
Thus, after a period of church hunting and searching (including time at the church J.B. Phillips pastored in Blooomsbury) it was of little surprise that she and Thomas began to attach themselves to the Society of Friends during their time in Leeds. As Lonsdale herself noted, “[Quakerism], in dispensing with creeds, holds out a hand to the scientist.”[ix] However, Kathleen was not seeking a Christianity vacated of intellectual content; instead she was more attracted by Quakerism’s emphasis on the practical outworking of Christ’s teaching and character.
Lonsdale was also attracted to Quakerism because it fit in with the strong pacifist leanings she developed during the First World War, when she witnessed death and destruction in air raids from her family home in the London suburb of Essex. When combined with Lonsdale’s “experimental” Quaker faith, in which God had a definite, intelligible will for each person’s life, her pacifism could not be mere idle conviction. This, ultimately, is why she chose the imprisonment which served as a turning point for her subsequent endeavors to promote world peace, international cooperation, and British prison reform.
In the meantime, Lonsdale’s stint in Holloway Prison did little to dampen her scientific career. She became a Dewar Fellow at the Royal Institution in 1944, was elected (along with the microbiologist Marjory Stephenson) as one of the first two women members of the Royal Society in 1945, appointed a Reader in Chemistry (roughly equivalent to a full Professorship in the US) at the University College London in 1946, and made head of its department of Crystallography three years later. Moreover, her scientific output at the Royal Institution and following was extremely prolific. According to her biographer Dorothy Crowfoot-Hodgkins, she studied resorcinol’s magnetic anisotropy, the graphite-diamond transformation, methonium compounds, gallstones, boron nitride, and reactions in the solid state. In addition, she conducted extremely rigorous work on thermal motions in crystals (the vast majority of crystal structures published today do not meet her exacting standards). Unsurprisingly, these achievements brought her further honors and increased responsibility. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1956, received the Davy medal in 1967, and was elected the first woman President of the International Union of Crystallography and the first woman President of the British Association for the Advancement of science in 1966 and 1967, respectively.
Lonsdale deeply connected both the conduct and content of her scientific work to her personal experience of faith. She even likened the Christian faith to the scientific pursuit of truth:
“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. So too is the Christian life, lived experimentally. If we knew all the answers it would not be nearly such fun.”[x]
Indeed, Lonsdale’s work in crystallography mirrored her experimental processes of discovering God in many respects. By experimentally “breaking crystals to pieces,” she argued, the complex nature of the organic world could be recognized. For her “appreciation of beauty and order, and appreciation of intellectual honesty move us towards the truth, not away from it.”[xi]
The scientific work, pacifism, and imprisonment of Lonsdale opened doors of opportunity for practical humanitarian service. Because of her firsthand experience as a prison inmate, she was appointed to the Board of Visitors at several prisons for Women and Girls. Following Christ’s example of care for both the woman of Samaria and Centurion, in which “every single individual is of value to God, and should be of value to his fellow men, however depraved, afflicted, ignorant or inexperienced that individual may be,”[xii] she befriended both inmates and prison officials alike as she argued for numerous small changes that would make for a more humane, caring, and rehabilitative prison environment. Many of these changes were small and practical, such as allowing inmates personal items to improve their cleanliness and hygiene.
Lonsdale’s pacifism also found new outlets after the dropping of the atom bomb in 1945 and the subsequent Cold-War dampening of East-West relations. The bomb in particular violated Lonsdale’s sensibilities as both a scientist and Quaker. She saw it as an example of scientists creating instability in the world, quoting the Rector of the Imperial College of Science to the effect that “any many can throw a log on the fire, but to put a billet of enriched uranium onto the nuclear fire requires a long line of physicists, chemists, and engineers.”[xiii] Consequently, Lonsdale was active in a variety of peace movements. She joined the British Association of Atomic Scientists, was involved in the founding of the Pugwash movement, served as President of the British section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and served as a member of the East-West Committee of the Society of Friends.
Lonsdale’s Quakerism helped direct and inform her peace activism. She expressed her ideas in speeches, editorials, and most notably her book length treatment Is Peace Possible? A Quaker Scientist Discusses Problems of Peace, Freedom, and Justice in an Era of Expanding World Population and Technical Development. The subtitle of the latter reveals the breadth and depth of her thinking. She recognized that the route to peace would not merely consist in banning war and nuclear armaments but in making the use of war as a means for resolving conflicts abhorrent. Lonsdale felt that the causes of war should be removed by promoting just relationships among nations, even if it meant taking such radical steps as addressing uneven wealth and resource distribution between the first and third world. She believed that governments should think deeply about international inequities, squarely face the facts, and “act justly, no matter what others may do.”[xiv] However, Kathleen did not feel that her calling was just to advise politicians. Scientists could and should lead the way by providing technologies to alleviate human suffering and misery as well as by providing an example of peaceable and fruitful international collaboration.
Kathleen’s ideas may have been a bit idealistic, but she was no utopian, and certainly no armchair peace worker. Although she was aware of the practical difficulties associated with international quarrels and bad actors in the international community, she believed strongly in the value of the early Quaker leader William Penn’s ideas about developing trusting relationships in statesmanship, even quoting Penn to the effect that “love and patience in the end must have the victory.”[xv] Consistent with her belief in a faith of action, Lonsdale personally sought to develop such relationships. Much of this took place quietly through the normal channels open to scientists, namely conference and lecture travel and through hosting foreign scientists in her research group. He work included visits Britain’s Cold War enemies China and Russia. In fact her first visit to the latter was with the East-West committee of the Society of Friends as part of their campaign to minister to Quakers in the Soviet Union and promote peace, which for Kathleen meant developing friendships and working relationships with Soviet scientists.
Much of Kathleen’s personal peace work may have involved small gestures, but that went part and parcel in hand with her belief that every scientist is responsible for his or her own personal ethical conduct:
“Every scientist should feel a sense of personal responsibility, not necessarily for the mess in which the world is in now, but a responsibility to think out his fundamental axioms and the system of ethics that he builds up on those axioms, and then a responsibility for attempting, through personal decisions and personal actions, to make the world the kind of place he knows it ought to be.”[xvi]
She also believed that and that even one scientist could make a difference, as could be seen by both small number of scientists which advocated for the atom bomb’s development and the antislavery work of Quakers like John Woolman whose scrupulous personal refusal to benefit from the slave trade in any way contributed to the abolition of slavery in Britain.
Before discussing what Christians in the sciences today might learn from Kathleen Lonsdale’s approach to science and faith, it should be noted that her emphasis on pacifism and Christian service was not merely an outgrowth of her interest in Christ’s moral beauty or ethical principles. Personally, she felt that right ethical principles alone can’t produce moral behavior; “there must be a force which drives us to the achievement of our theoretical ideal.”[xvii] Without personal faith, she believed, the discussion of the ethics of war and peace would be “just as academic as making an attempt to discuss hypothetical crystal structures without making any attempt to discover whether they are in accordance with experimental observations.”[xviii]
While those who emphasize creedal Christianity or do not believe in strict pacifism might disagree with important components of Lonsdale’s approach to science and religion, we suggest that her life holds several important lessons for Christians in the sciences today. Indeed, all should at least appreciate Kathleen Lonsdale’s willingness to apply Jesus’ life and teachings to practical problems associated with science and its position in the world. Undoubtedly, her life is an example of the importance of taking our individual roles and responsibilities as Christians within particular scientific, religious, and civic communities seriously, in both matters large and small.
Furthermore, Lonsdale’s life exemplifies how Christian discipleship in science involves a mix of the ordinary and dramatic. If, as Kathleen Lonsdale believed, God has a definite will for us at all times, it seems that for most of her life this involved such mundane matters as constructing equipment, making crystallographic measurements, compiling critical tables, and being a good colleague by promoting scientific cooperation and responsibility, not to mention the difficulties of maintaining good familial relationships at home. This woman who was fairly “ruthless in keeping to her schedule” and worked “twice as long as the average trades [unionist]” apparently found an hour each day to read to her children[xix] and spent “a great deal of her time guiding beginners through the critical stages of research.”[xx] Overall, Lonsdale appears to have avoided the two common pitfalls facing Christians in the sciences, namely those of neglecting family and church life for the demands of scientific work and of letting contemporary Christianity’s tendency to devalue secular work cause her to begrudge spending long hours in pursuit of her scientific vocation.
Among her labors in the pursuit of science, her work on the International Tables arguably raises the most interesting issues for Christians. Although these tables contributed much to the work of her fellow crystallographers, the task was rather unglamorous and some scientists apparently felt that the time she spent on them diminished her overall scientific productivity.[xxi] To our knowledge she never explicitly talked about the role faith may have played in her service to the crystallographic community; nevertheless, Christ’s example and teachings provide a powerful motivation for laying down one’s life in the service of others. Kathleen Lonsdale’s ethic of mundane service and collaboration provides an excellent corrective for those who are tempted to avoid unglamorous, but highly useful, work or adopt a self-serving and overly protective attitude towards one’s field of research in the pursuit of career advancement.[xxii] All Christians are not called to be the top researchers in their fields; but all should at least be known for the integrity of their work and quality as collaborators.
It should also be noted that while Kathleen’s more public ministry in prison work and pacifist activism reflected her individual inclinations, its shape and tenor was conditioned by her involvement with the Society of Friends. Indeed, she did not merely address issues of faith, science, and peace on the world stage but also in predominantly Quaker gatherings throughout the UK; some of her addresses on these subjects were even disseminated among the Society by Quaker publishing houses. This is hardly surprising as Kathleen Lonsdale deeply understood the Quaker tradition and her writings essentially applied Quaker theology to both science and the problems of war and peace. Given that Kathleen Lonsdale’s contributions to faith-science dialogue are to some extent Quaker ideas, it is worthwhile to ask what resources different church traditions might be able to contribute to the Christian engagement with science, both intellectually and in terms of emphasis.
To some extent, the science and religion dialogue in North America has been dominated by fundamentalist voices and doctrinal concerns. This has led to a great deal of salutary theological and philosophical reflection on the compatibility of science and Christian doctrine. However, there has been much less discussion over how to apply the gospel to the everyday practice of science, its use in social service and missions, or possible implications associated with the prevalence of science and technology in modern societies. In this respect, Kathleen Lonsdale’s reflections indicate that science-faith dialogue might benefit from greater engagement with the Christian traditions that emphasize more practical and experiential aspects of Christianity. Indeed, even though neither of us has a background in the Quaker tradition, we have found our faith strengthened by Kathleen Lonsdale’s example and insights.
We thank Michael Everest for helpful conversations that helped clarify how Kathleen Lonsdale’s faith influenced her conduct of science.
Baldwin, Melinda. "'Where Are Your Intelligent Mothers to Come from' Marriage and Family in the of Career of Dame Kathleen Lonsdale FRS (1903-71)." Notes Rec. R. Soc. 63 (2009): 81-94.
Hearn, Walter R. "Whole People and Half-Truths." In The Scientist and Ethical Decision, edited by Charles Hatfield, 83-96. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973.
Hodgkin, D. M. C. "Kathleen Lonsdale, 28 January 1903 – 1 April 1971." Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 21 (1975): 447-84.
Lonsdale, Kathleen. "The Ethical Problems of Scientists." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 7.7 (1951): 201-04.
---. "I Believe: The Eighteenth Arthur Stanley Eddington Memorial Lecture." Cambridge University Press, 1964. 56.
---. Is Peace Possible? A Quaker Scientist Discusses Problems of Peace, Freedom, and Justice in an Era of Expanding World Population and Technical Development. Norwich, Great Britian: Penguin, 1957.
---. "Science and Religion." Learning for Living 7.4 (1968): 12-15.
---. "Science, Religion, and the Student." London: Friends Home Service Committee, 1970. 15.
[i] Lonsdale, Kathleen I Believe: The Eighteenth Arthur Stanley Eddington Memorial Lecture, 6 November 1964 Cambridge University Press, 1964, pg. 54.
[ii] Ibid, pp. 54-55.
[iii] Kathleen was the first woman to do so. Consistent with the chauvinism of the times, such courses were only offered at the boy’s school.
[iv] Lonsdale, Kathleen “Women in Science – why so few? Laboratory Equipment Digest February 1971, pg. 85, as quoted in Hodgkin, Dorothy M.C. “Kathleen Lonsdale, 28 January 1903 – 1 April 1971” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 21 (1975), pg. 474.
[v] In fairness Kathleen and her collaborator, W.T. Asbury, share the credit for this work.
[vi] Lonsdale, Kathleen Simplified Structure Factor and Electron Density Formulae for the 230 Space-groups of Mathematical Crystallography Bell and Sons, London, 1936.
[vii] Lonsdale, I Believe, pp. 11-12.
[viii] Lonsdale, Kathleen Science, Religion, and the Student London, Friends Home Service Committee, 1970, pg. 13.
[ix] Ibid, pg. 4.
[x] Lonsdale, I Believe, pg. 55.
[xi]Ibid, pg. 32.
[xii] Lonsdale, K., The Ethical Problems of Scientists. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 7.7 (1951): p. 202.
[xiii] Quoted in Lonsdale, Kathleen Is Peace Possible? Norwich, Great Britain: Penguin, 1957.
[xiv] Ibid, pg. 58.
[xv] Penn, William An Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe Peace Committee of the Society of Friends, 1963 as quoted in Lonsdale, Is Peace Possible? pp. 59-60.
[xvi] Lonsdale, The Ethical Problems of Scientists,: p. 204.
[xvii] Ibid., pg. 202.
[xix] Hodgkin, Dorothy M.C. “Kathleen Lonsdale, 28 January 1903 – 1 April 1971” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 21 (1975), pg. 468, 474.
[xx] Ibid., pg. 468.
[xxi] Ibid., pg. 456.
[xxii] This is not to say that Christians in the sciences should avoid glamorous work or take measures to obtain fair credit for their work. We are merely advocating that Christians in science should avoid letting the pressures of career advancement and “the game of science” determine their general orientation to scientific work. For more on this point we would direct you to Walter Hearn’s “Whole People and Half-Truths” in In The Scientist and Ethical Decision, edited by Charles Hatfield, 83-96. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973.