Politics: Not nearly as logical as chemistry

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Written by

Colin Groom

Posted on

April 10, 2013

It seems compulsory at the moment for every blog to mention the death of former British Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher. Most reports focus on the life and political legacy of Britain’s only female Prime Minister, but of course prior to her life in politics, Thatcher began her career as a chemist.
As an undergraduate at The University of Oxford, the young Thatcher (then Margaret Roberts) undertook a fourth-year dissertation, in 1946-47, on X-ray crystallography of the antibiotic Gramicidin S. This work was carried out in the research group of Dorothy Hodgkin. Jon Agar gives a super account of the importance of science in shaping her life entitled "Thatcher, Scientist", in an article for Notes and Records of the Royal Society (doi:10.1098/rsnr.2010.0096)
Research into antibiotics was extremely important at the time, with Hodgkin determining the structure of penicillin in 1945. Thatcher never published a paper on the structure of Gramicidin, a sign perhaps of the challenging nature of the task.  Thatcher herself said in a speech to the merging Chemical Society and The Royal Institute of Chemistry, on becoming an Honorary Fellow in 1979:
“In my day with her we were working on a molecule called gramicidin S. We thought it was the simplest nuclear protein but it turned out to be one of the most complicated and the structure took 30 years to get out. She did it, I didn't!”

The structure of Gramicidin S, taken from CSD refcode ENELIS

In fact Hodgkin published unit cell information for Gramicidin S in 1957 (CSD refcode ZZZTWY), revealing two polymorphs of the structure, both with very large cell volumes, but most gramicidin structures are disordered, and the first full structure solution of Gramicidin S didn’t enter the CSD until almost 45 years later, in 1993 (CSD refcode PIRBAT).
Those readers considering following in Thatcher's footsteps, may be interested in another passage from the same speech:
“I must tell you that one of the first things you find in politics is that it is not nearly as logical as chemistry. You will therefore understand that chemistry is very much easier than politics so I don't necessarily recommend that a large number of other people should follow in my footsteps if they are devoted both to the art and science of logic. “


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