Margaret Thatcher died today at 87. She'll be remembered as the first (and only) woman to be prime minister of Britain, but what's often missed or only glanced over in her biographies, and now her obituaries, is her career as a chemist.
Thatcher graduated from Oxford in 1947 with an undergraduate degree in chemistry. Her fourth-year dissertation was on X-ray crystallography of the antibiotic cocktail gramicidin, and her supervisor, Dorothy Hodgkin, was working at the time on the structure of penicillin. In the years after, Thatcher worked as an industrial chemist at British Xylonite Plastics and at Lyons, with a probably apocryphal story circulating that she helped produce a form of soft-scoop ice cream.
It's seldom discussed how much her degree might've affected her politics. A paper by science and technology professor Jon Agar, written for Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London and published in 2010, took a look at that connection, first by examining her as a student:
But instead Thatcher took a position at British Xylonite (BX) Plastics in 1947, Agar writes. It's not clear exactly what her work entailed, but she, perhaps unexpectedly, joined a union there. In 1949, after gaining an opportunity as a parliamentary candidate, Thatcher became a food research chemist at "the cakes and teashop business J. Lyons & Co." She likely researched the chemical process saponification, but not much else can be confirmed about her work there.
By 1951, Thactcher resigned from Lyons and switched career paths, studying tax law and passing the Bar in 1953. In 1959, she won a seat in Parliament.
The popular theory, then, is that Thatcher studying chemistry was "incidental," Agar writes. It kept the lights on while she pursued politics. He quotes journalist Hugo Young's summary:
But that doesn't mean her career as a chemist and politician never intertwined, Agar argues. In 1971, Lord Victor Rothschild proposed laws to make government funding of science closer to a business proposition: policy would be shaped by market forces. "Basic" research science (or just "cheap" science) wouldn't be affected, but other research would. Thatcher, then Education Secretary, strangely seemed to shift positions in a decisive meeting on the subject, ultimately agreeing that the market should play a role in government funding of science.
It was a controversial decision--121 scientists and doctors signed letters of protest to The Times--but Agar marks this as a defining moment, when Thatcher's hard-line conservative policies first took shape. It wasn't a coincidence that the battle was fought over science, either, Agar writes: "it was precisely because Thatcher knew what scientific research was like that made her impervious to claims that science was a special case, with special features and incapable of being understood by outsiders, and therefore that science policy should be left in the hands of scientists. Such a strategy of persuasion and protection might have considerable purchase on a science minister with no direct experience of the working life of a scientist, but not Thatcher."
Agar sees that moment as the beginning of a slope toward more conservative policies. In effect, she used her chemistry background to test the political water: if she could pull off policies like that in the science sector, she could do it in other sectors, too. Agar writes that Thatcher was fond of this quote, about Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and the physicist Michael Faraday: 'When Gladstone met Michael Faraday, he asked him whether his work on electricity would be of any use. "Yes, sir", remarked Faraday with prescience. "One day you will tax it."'
Britain is desperately lacking in politicians with scientific training, sadly Thatcher's dictatorial approach did science no favours when she 'reigned'.
She went from being a respected scientist to a politician.
I really did not need to read this article to guess she would betray the scientific community in the end.
Politicians always do whatever their backers want.
And why all the unanswered questions? Couldn't they just ask her about her life choices while she was alive?
Im guessing she wouldn't give a straight answer for fear of exposing a lifetime of lies.
The jeering peanut gallery of wankers here notwithstanding, She was a great person, and leader. Her amazing legacy will long outlive her petty detractors.
I highly respect this model Lady!
Um, this is PopSci.
Any contribution she may or may not have made outside of science is irrelevant here.
No matter how "amazing" they might be.
So go find a forum that cares.
Popularity, chemistry science, political science, Margaret Thatcher seems roughtly related to PoPSCi. I have no problem with the article.
AnyIcon I agree, nothing is wrong with the article. Its is very informative.
ejfineran and killerT, you say that Margaret Thatcher hurt science when she became Prime Minister. Please elaborate because it is not clear to the rest of us. Meanwhile we'll dismiss it as your uninformed opinion.
Laurenra7 - it should be very clear to you that privatizing great swathes of strategic industries drastically reduced the levels of R & D carried out in the UK and left us with foreign owned services whose only function is to screw profits for the poorest service. Meanwhile, our Nuclear expertise has all but vanished to the extent that we are hoping that the french will build our next generation of nuclear power plants.
@AnyIcon and killerT
The "problem" with this article on this site is that it has everyone talking about politics, Margaret Thatcher, good person/bad person, and whether or not the article is appropriate for this site. But nowhere do I see anyone talking about a scientific topic.
I decided to use "today's magic is tomorrows technology" as my closing line when I first signed up as a popsci reader many years ago... when it applied to this site. When the topics discussed here left no doubt that we were debating science... theories.... discoveries.... not politicians, agendas and propaganda as poopsci seems to have turned to dramatically in the past few years. Far worse, is that they have picked a side.. and once you choose a political side.... your scientific objectivity is gone.
If you have to ask yourselves if its appropriate for this site, its probably not.
Today's magic is tomorrow's technology.
So ejfineran, this is what Margaret Thatcher did. She stopped the unaccountable system of block-grant funding of universities, separating funding for education from funding for research, as is done (successfully) in the U.S. This created greater accountability and allowed the government to decide which research it would fund and which it wouldn't (just like the U.S.). This makes sense to most of us who think there are all kinds of research that don't merit taxpayer support.
You say that's what impeded scientific progress and research and development in the U.K.? How do you figure? The U.S. has been doing it that way for an awfully long time and we have a thriving scientific community--as does, incidentally, the U.K. in case you haven't noticed.
Did you consider that certainly "strategic" technology, like nuclear power, went into decline (in the U.K. AND the U.S.) not because of inadequate funding, but because citizens lobbied against it? The U.S. also has a dearth of nuclear scientists, but it has nothing to do with funding. It has to do with public sentiment turning against it due to the successful lobbying of science-challenged environmentalists.
Thatcher was looking at a ballooning character trait where funding principles were totally out of date by any measure-just due to the vast potentials of the recent core field discoveries which have been exponentially increasing since the 70's. Then in the U.K. is like now here. There simply isn't money for everything-even the things that have been deemed strategically important. If people aren't willing to back the development cycle of a given technology, then there is no demand for it. If you consider that most of government funded research does indeed get published and that people with money to invest know that fact, then it does follow that there is no known demand. I don't know what the search engine capability of a tech investor acts like, but I know what mine does and it more than keeps me in full time reading. I see discoveries in things that ain't got a snowball of a chance daily. Many discoveries wait on need or future developments of other tech. We shouldn't be paying for those realities.
The Dept. of Education is SUPPOSED TO BE using some minor portion of the total known exploitable value of the land of America to educate this crop of kids coming up. Yet my kids can turn in work that will receive an A-that I wouldn't have been able to even turn in for grading. Hmmm. Interesting, isn't it? Our money and our education were still semi-legitimate back then. So the Dept. of Education should probably be looking at doing it's own job and actually teaching the kids, and let the Dept. of Commerce and DNR and Energy do theirs. Government should only be allowed to invest in what it needs.