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Lonsdale, Dame Kathleen,

organic structure royal crystals

née Yardley (1903–71) British crystallographer: applied X-ray diffraction analysis to organic crystals.

The 10th and last child of an Irish postmaster, Kathleen Yardley came to London when she was 5 and graduated there in physics when she was 19. For 20 years she worked at the Royal Institution, and for the next 20 at University College, London, developing methods pioneered by the for finding molecular structure by X-ray diffraction of crystals. In 1929 she worked out her first structure of great interest to organic chemists: it was that of hexamethylbenzene and her work showed that its benzenoid ring is a flat and regular hexagon of carbon atoms, whose carbon–carbon bond lengths she measured. Some 2 years later she worked out the structure of hexachlorobenzene using (for the first time) analysis to solve the structure; the method was to become the major technique used by her and others. When she began her work on organic structures, she ‘knew no organic chemistry and very little of any other kind’; but her results were of great value to organic chemists, as was her work on the physics of crystals, which gave reality to the concept of molecular orbitals.

A passionate pacifist and Quaker, Lonsdale refused in 1939 to register for civil defence or any other national service, and in 1943 she was fined £2 for the omission; refusing to pay, she spent a month in prison. In 1945 the Royal Society agreed to elect women Fellows, and with she became one of the first two female Fellows of the Royal Society.

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