Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale (1903-1971) may be just the spiritual companion you need. Though she is a person of breathtaking energy and accomplishment, what strikes the reader is her combination of common sense, commitment to good works, respect for intellect, and tender spirit.

Kathleen Lonsdale was born in Ireland to a troubled family: her father was alcoholic and absentee. Her mother, a religious woman, moved away from her husband to England, where Kathleen rose to eminence in the science of x-ray crystallography, a technique brought to effective use in the laboratories of William Bragg at University College, London. X-ray crystallography allows the chemist to elucidate the structure of crystals. It was a key source of data in the analysis of the agonizingly complex structures of proteins and the somewhat less complex structures of DNA. She was among the first of many women to make a prominent mark in this field, and she worked on problems ranging from simple organic compounds to the structure of diamonds, and of bladder stones and similar medical entities. Her scientific career, which began in 1922 and extended until her death in 1971, was notable not only for its productivity and significance, but also for her encouragement of women to enter the sciences. She was one of the first two women elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and held many other scientific posts of importance.

Meanwhile, interwoven with this creative and absorbing work, she was becoming a member of the Religious Society of Friends, a mother (having married another scientist, Thomas Lonsdale), and an activist. During World War II, she was jailed for a brief time for refusing to register for war service, and this stimulated a lifelong interest in prison reform. Her peace activities, and especially her concern for nuclear disarmament, led her to extensive writing and traveling, including a visit to the Soviet Union. She recognized that as a scientist she was a member of an international enterprise, whose loyalty should primarily be to the truth discoverable by scientific means, and to the good of humankind as a whole. It can be said that Kathleen Lonsdale was able to achieve to a remarkable degree an integrity of viewpoint. This arose not from uncritically "blending" her life, her science, and her spirituality, but by drawing from the depths of each sphere and considering how each cast light on the problems, needs, and wisdom of the others.

This integrity gave her writing on scientific ethics a certain tang. In a little piece called "The ethical problems of scientists," Lonsdale describes her understanding of the nature and interaction of science, ethics, and religion, and the axioms of Christianity. She goes on to a tough-minded discussion of the situations in which ethical challenges can arise for a scientist, and ends: "Scientists need to consider whether they have any special contribution to make to the solution of the world’s problems, apart from their specialized technical knowledge. . . . The scientist is trained to admit his mistakes, and it would be well if the world’s statesmen could sometimes do the same thing. . . . The most important thing, however, is that a scientist should feel a sense of personal responsibility . . . to think out his fundamental axioms and the system of ethics he builds up on those axioms, and then . . . attempting through personal decisions and personal actions to make the world the kind of place he knows it ought to be."

She was urgently aware of the uncertainties of daily living, and the corrosive and pervasive sense of societal insecurity that so shapes our world. "Our children will inhereit from us a world very different from the world we would like to have left them. We would like to leave them a safe world, a peaceful world, a comfortable world. It is more like a smouldering volcano." Nevertheless, she could assert, despite the pain and terrors that abound: "It is still a world of great opportunities for adventure, it is still a world in which [our children] may hear the voice of Jesus saying, even as he sends them out to work for him, ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’" (John 14:27)

Kathleen Lonsdale was very aware that, in order to be able to hear that message, one had to be about the work of faithfulness and experimental living, and she wrote about these with a refreshing clarity of expression. "We have to begin at the center, to control ourselves, and our tempers, to live peaceably with our immediate companions. . . . But when it comes to our own personal lives . . . we may have tried and failed again and again. One thing we can do is to find out why others have succeeded better, and try their method. . . . What all religions have in common is this sense of need, and the reaching out to a higher power for help. Jesus was tempted and he turned again and again in prayer to God. I do not think it is necessary to have a complete religious philosophy before we begin to ask for help to live a better life, especially if we are at our wit’s end as to how to do it on our own." She was committed both to an honest admission of her doubts, and to an honest, continuing engagement with questions of faith and belief: "I cannot be told . . . that I must believe this or that about Jesus before I can call myself a Christian. . . . I do not fear for the young man or woman who is prepared to do some hard thinking. The real dangers are indifference on the one hand, and credulity on the other."

Like any good scientist, she is familiar with the feeling that comes from being in the presence of her own ignorance or limitations: "I still can’t understand the facts of temptation, of famine, flood, disease, and death, with all the undeserved suffering that these bring. I still find that my attempts to explain evil and wickedness are far too facile to satisfy myself, let alone anyone else. But I know that the symbol of God the Father is a true one, that Jesus was right and God loves and suffers with us and for us; because in spite of all that I don’t understand, and don’t pretend to understand, I do know that love through my own experience."

This willingness not to know, combined with a commitment to act on what she could testify to, in confidence that more light would be given, results in a real joy that comes through her writings on social concerns and spirituality, despite her plain-spoken realism, and makes me wish I had known her: "If we knew all the answers, there would be no point in carrying 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."

For further reading:

I have not found a biography of Kathleen Lonsdale—aside from memorials in the scientific literature, which can be found easily on the Internet. The best way to get to know her writings is in the little anthology edited by James Hough called The Christian Life—Lived Experimentally, published by Friends Home Service Committee of Britain Yearly Meeting. This contains some autobiographical material, though much of her other writing on ethics, peace, and religion is very personal as well. Also widely available still, at least in used copies, is her Eddington Lecture, I Believe. . . , published by Cambridge University Press in 1964. I have found this in several meetinghouse libraries in my travels about, and I suspect that Kathleen Lonsdale was a resource once more widely known than now.