The Lonsdale Blue Plaque

Claire Murray
Kathleen Lonsdale in academic gown (courtesy of The Lonsdale Family) and her Blue Plaque (courtesy of English Heritage).

In a world where travel is currently limited, it is nice to dream about the future places we might visit. I’d suggest every crystallographer mark 19 Colenso Road, Seven Kings, London, UK, as a travel destination on their bucket list. This was the childhood home of Kathleen Lonsdale and is now commemorated by a blue plaque by English Heritage. These plaques are erected to identify people or events of historical interest linked to the location of the plaque, and they can be found all over London and the UK in various forms. They are a unique way to raise the interest and profile of the person or event through an extremely short summary in clear language. Kathleen Lonsdale’s illustrious career in crystallography, and more, means she deserves this honour, and it is exciting to think of curiosity being sparked about her when people see the plaque. There is already so much about her online in the 643,000 hits in a Google search, including an obituary written about her by Dorothy Hodgkin and a review article by Mike Glazer, so people can explore her story, her achievements and her contributions to crystallography in various levels of detail.

[Fig. 1]Left: Kathleen Lonsdale’s plaque marks her childhood home in Seven Kings, Redbridge, where she lived from 1911 to 1927 – a formative time encompassing her education, the First World War, and her early days at University College London and the Royal Institution. Photo courtesy of English Heritage. Right: Kathleen Lonsdale aged 50. Photo courtesy of The Lonsdale Family.

In considering her achievements, it seems tragically ironic that one of the latest things I learned about Kathleen Lonsdale was her work on International Tables for Crystallography, given these are a keystone in crystallography for new starters and trained professionals alike. They were clearly the work of many, but upon recently seeing her beautifully detailed work for a handwritten copy of the structure-factor tables, it struck me that it is easy to overlook the breadth of her contributions to the fundamentals of crystallography. It raises an interesting point about how we talk about scientists’ achievements. General discussions where scientists are mentioned frequently result in a reduction of the scientist to short ‘sound bites’. However, within the very field of a scientist, there is so much more opportunity to share, celebrate and reflect across the whole of a scientist’s career, rather than defining them by one point or one moment in time. We lose part of our history that has played a critical role in shaping the developments in our field and provide a very selective story of how knowledge ‘appeared.’ Typewriters couldn’t handle the mathematical transcriptions of the knowledge that Lonsdale and colleagues were building at the time, so she handwrote the first version of the tables whilst working at the Royal Institution for them to be reproduced effectively via high-resolution photocopies for about 20 crystallographic departments around the world. These tables were used to teach many hundreds of crystallographers and were regularly referred to by leading figures in and out of the field. The immense care and work Lonsdale put into painstakingly recording the 230 space groups by hand (!) is therefore something we should not forget.

[Fig. 2]Sample pages of Kathleen Lonsdale's handwritten structure-factor tables, reproduced by permission of the Royal Institution Archival Collection.
7 May 2021

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