Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Kathleen Lonsdale

 1903 - 1971

In 1964, Kathleen Lonsdale gave the Arthur Stanley Eddington Memorial lecture, entitled I Believe. In it she said;

If we knew all the answers there would be no point in carrying out 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.

Kathleen Lonsdale was a Quaker chemist who was instrumental in developing the science of crystallography. She was a peace campaigner and a prison reformer, and wrote influential books on these concerns, as well as her many scientific publications.

Lonsdale (nee Yardley) was born in County Kildare, Ireland, the youngest of ten children. Her mother was a strict Baptist, but when her parents separated and Lonsdale moved with her mother to Essex, there was no local Baptist congregation. She attended the Church of Ireland and went to a Methodist Sunday School.

Lonsdale won a scholarship to Ilford County High School for Girls, where she excelled in maths and science, attending classes at the boys’ Grammar School because they were not offered at the girls’ school. She was only 16 when she entered Bedford College, University of London, and in 1922 she took her degree in physics, achieving the highest marks of any student for ten years. Professor WH Bragg then invited her to join his team researching X-ray diffraction at University College London, initially studying simple organic crystals.

In 1927, she married engineer Thomas Lonsdale, and moved with him to Leeds, where as part of the chemistry department she conclusively demonstrated the crystal structure of benzene. The couple’s first child was born in 1929.

In 1931, she returned to work with Bragg at the Royal Institute, staying there for 15 years. She was awarded a DSc in 1936, and in 1945, along with microbiologist, Marjory Stephenson, she became one of the first women Fellows of the Royal Society. She was Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Crystallography, University College, London, from 1949 to 1968.

It was while the Lonsdales were in Leeds that both Thomas and Kathleen became involved with Quakers, becoming Members in 1936. They were both committed pacifists.

During WWII, Lonsdale sheltered refugees, and in 1943, she spent a month in jail for refusing to register for civil defence duties or to pay the consequent fine of £2. Her first hand experience of prison led to her being appointed to the Board of Visitors at several women’s prisons where she argued for changes that would make for a more humane, caring, and rehabilitative prison.

After WWII, she became an anti-nuclear campaigner. She joined the British Association of Atomic Scientists, was involved in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, founded in the desire to see all nuclear arms destroyed, and served as President of the British section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. As a member of the East-West Committee of the Society of Friends, she took part in a Quaker delegation to the Soviet Union in 1951. In 1953, she delivered the Swarthmore Lecture, Removing the Causes of War.

In 1956 she wrote, Is Peace Possible?, in which she explored the relationship between world peace and world population needs. Lonsdale felt that the causes of war should be removed by promoting just relationships among nations, even if it meant taking such radical steps as addressing uneven wealth and resource distribution between the first and third world.

Like her fellow Quaker scientist, astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell, she saw close parallels between her life as a Quaker and her work as a scientist. She wrote;

[Quakerism], in dispensing with creeds, holds out a hand to the scientist.

In 1966, lonsdaleite, a rare form of meteoric diamond, was named after her. Wryly, she wrote to Clifford Frondel at Harvard University, who suggested the name, “Certainly the name seems appropriate since the mineral only occurs in very small quantities (perhaps rare would be too flattering) and is generally rather mixed up!"

Lonsdale died in 1971 of cancer, possibly caused by her prolonged exposure to X-rays. 

Print this article

Further Reading and Credits

external links


further reading
  • Removing the Causes of War, Swarthmore lecture 1953
  • Is Peace Possible? A Quaker Scientist Discusses Problems of Peace, Freedom, and Justice in an Era of Expanding World Population and Technical Development, Penguin, 1956
  • Science, Religion, and the Student, Lonsdale, Kathleen, Friends Home Service Committee, 1970