Dame Kathleen Lonsdale: the vegan

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This International Women's Day Camilla Mørk Røstvik explores the life of one of science's most famous women, revealing her vegan roots.

Kathleen at workWhen Dame Kathleen Lonsdale FRS died in 1971 her obituary writers had a lot to cover. Lonsdale had been a crystallographer and scientist of international reputation, and one of the first female fellows of the prestigious Royal Society. As a scientist she had a large influence on the development of X-ray crystallography, which she used to study the structure of molecules. In 1929 she published her important paper on the structure of the benzene ring in hexamethylbenzene, and the discovery had a huge effect on the discipline of organic chemistry by proving theories of shapes long debated in the field. She also worked on the synthesis of diamonds, a part of her genius that was recognized when a diamond found in meteorites was named after her. But Lonsdale’s life was more than great discovery and academic success(1).  She had also gone to Holloway Prison in 1943 for refusing to lend her services to the fight as a proud pacifist and Quaker. She had inspired countless women to work in the sciences, not least by raising three children parallel to her discoveries. She was beloved, inspiring and unique at a time when many women struggled under traditional roles. Because her life was so interesting, it is perhaps not strange that one aspect of her lifestyle was not really investigated: her veganism.  

I first came across Lonsdale while studying the role of women in the history of science. However, even as a long-time vegan myself, I did not realize that Lonsdale was of the plant-persuasion until this year. Upon reading the beautiful obituary about Lonsdale, written by fellow female scientist pioneer Dame Dorothy Hodgkin FRS (side note: she discovered B12, and should thus be celebrated by many a vegan!), I came across some quick notes on food and lifestyle:

She did think of giving up her scientific research on marriage and settling down to become a good wife and mother, but Thomas (Jackson Lonsdale) would have none of it; he had not married, he said, to get a free housekeeper. They went shopping together, once a week, for supplies and Kathleen specialized in meals that took thirty minutes to prepare(2).’  

In a small footnote connected to this, Hodgkin elaborates about her friend:

(it was colleague Prof KS Krishnan’s example that encouraged Kathleen Lonsdale to become vegetarian, though she did not actually give up meat altogether till much later, after a lecture by a vegan, Donald Cross).

Vegan nerds might recognize ‘Donald Cross’ as a portmanteau of Donald Watson, founder of veganism, and Leslie Cross, founder of Plamil foods. The interesting aspect of Lonsdale’s veganism is that she not only was inspired by her vegetarian Indian colleague, physicist and Nobel Prize winner Sir Kariamanickam Srinivasa Krishnan FRS, but seems to have kept up to speed on contemporary debates about animal rights and food. At some point, probably in the 1950s, Lonsdale transitioned into becoming vegan. Hodgkin clearly got either Watson or Cross’ names wrong, and so it is impossible to know which vegan pioneer Lonsdale was so inspired by.

Vegan historian Ian McDonald got in touch with some possible clues as to who and what Lonsdale saw. He was not aware of Watson nor Cross giving talks to scientists, and suggested instead that the link could have come through Lonsdale’s Quaker and/or pacifist beliefs. The early Vegan Society did have some involvement with science, after B12 was identified (by Hodgkin!), and a “vegan diet group” was established to make sure veganism could be a healthy lifestyle. You can read more about the discovery of B12 in Vegan Society history. However, it is more likely that Lonsdale visited the Central Meeting House of the Quakers near her work place at University College London in the 1950s. Their canteen was one of the few places to get vegan food, and with her infamously long working days, Lonsdale would have had to rely on others cooking. The Central Meeting House also hosted a few vegan meetings at the time, so it could be that Lonsdale either happened upon them or, as an enthusiastic and proud vegetarian, turned up to hear the speakers. 

Despite the missing pieces of Lonsdale’s vegan origin-story, vegans can feel proud of this early vegan heroine, who broke down so many boundaries in science and life.  

If YOU know anything else about Lonsdale, the vegan meetings at the Central Meeting House of Quakers or any other missing pieces of the puzzle, do get in touch on kloym[at]hotmail[dot]com and CC The Vegan Society via web[at]vegansociety[dot]com.

By Dr Camilla Mørk Røstvik


(1) A commentary on Lonsdale’s academic impact can be found at the Royal Society: A.M. Glazer, “’There ain’t nothing like a Dame’ – A commentary on Londsdale”, Philosophical Transactions A373,  (6 March 2015): http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/373/2039/20140232 (accessed 28 February 2017)

(2) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, “Kathleen Lonsdale. 28 January 1903-1 April 1971”, Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society Vol. 21 (Nov 1975), pp. 447-484:  p. 450.

Further reading

• A.M. Glazer, “’There ain’t nothing like a Dame’ – A commentary on Londsdale”, Philosophical Transactions A373,  (6 March 2015): http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/373/2039/20140232 

• Melinda Baldwin, “Where are your intelligent mothers to come from?: marriage and family in the scientific career of Dame Kathleen Lonsdale FRS (1903-71)”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society Vol. 63, Iss. 1 (20 March 2009): http://rsnr.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/63/1/81 

• Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, “Kathleen Lonsdale. 28 January 1903-1 April 1971”, Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society Vol. 21 (Nov 1975), pp. 447-484: http://rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/21/447

• Ian McDonald’s fantastic resources about vegan history: http://theveganoption.org/vegetarian-history/

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