History in the Valley

The History of Biomathematics in the Pioneer Valley

Dorothy Wrinch: the first biomathematician in the Valley

The Four College Biomathematics Program, begun in 2011, allows the colleges of the Pioneer Valley to work together across many scientific disciplines. This, however, is not the first biomathematics collaboration in the college consortium. The first experiment with intercollege cooperation in any field began 70 years earlier, with the appointment of Dorothy Wrinch in 1941 to teach courses on molecular biology at Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges. In her words, the effort was “the first of its kind to be given in any center of higher education.”

Dorothy Wrinch in the “Smith Mobile” taking her to and fro the 3 colleges, ca. 1941. From the Sophia Smith Collection at the Smith College Archives.

A British mathematician, born in 1894, Wrinch applied mathematical analysis to scientific problems. She was a founder of the Theoretical Biology Club in 1932, which drew on many scientific and mathematical disciplines in order to explore and understand biological questions. By the end of the decade, Wrinch was the center of “controversy among the leading chemists, physicists, and biologists of [the United States] and Europe” for her theories on protein structure.

At the time, it was believed that protein molecules carried genetic information. Most chemists believed protein peptides were arranged in long chains, but Wrinch was dissatisfied with unanswered questions that the model raised and sought to create her own. Though lacking training in chemistry, she created the “cyclol” model of protein structure by using geometrical principles.

Dorothy Wrinch envisioned proteins as "fabrics" which folded into cages she called cyclols. This model of the cyclol was made and photographed in Niels Bohr's laboratory in 1938.
Dorothy Wrinch envisioned proteins as “fabrics” which folded into cages she called cyclols. This model of the cyclol was made and photographed in Niels Bohr’s laboratory in 1938.

While the ensuing controversy and clashes between different scientists ultimately proved that Wrinch’s model was wrong, her theories inspired in-depth research into the structure of proteins and other molecules. Wrinch has been described as “a brilliant and controversial figure who played a part in the beginnings of much of present research in molecular biology.” This is especially apparent with her aforementioned cross-disciplinary approach in teaching molecular biology.

After serving as a visiting professor in the three colleges, Wrinch was hired as a visiting professor of physics at Smith College, and remained there until her death in 1976. Her mathematical approach to biological questions is an inspiration to for the study of biomathematics in the Pioneer Valley.

You can learn more about Dorothy Wrinch by reading I Died For Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science by Marjorie Senechal.