Perhaps the most renowned woman chemistry graduate in the world died on Monday, 8 April. Margaret Thatcher’s fame, however, did not arise from the undergraduate degree she earned at Oxford University, although she wrote her thesis under future chemistry Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin, who declared her a “good” student, according to an article inby historian of science Jon Agar. Nor did Thatcher win celebrity from the three post-university years she spent in industrial laboratories, working first for a plastics firm and then for a food company. Margaret Thatcher earned her enduring place in history, of course, as the United Kingdom’s first—and thus far only—woman Prime Minister, and the person to hold that post the longest—more than 11 years—in the twentieth century.
Even before she earned her chemistry degree, the then Margaret Roberts regretted studying chemistry, wishing that she had studied law instead, Agar notes. Her real interest lay in politics, and she devoted much of her free time to it at university and afterward. Her scientific career, which she reportedly regarded at first as a way for a girl of humble origins to win admission to Oxford and then later as a way to earn her living, ended for good after those 3 years of industrial laboratory work. She studied law and became a lawyer.
“[I]t was precisely because Thatcher knew what scientific research was like that made her impervious to claims that science was a special case, with special features and incapable of being understood by outsiders, and therefore that science policy should be left in the hands of scientists.” —Jon Agar
While still working in the lab, (and simultaneously running unsuccessfully for Parliament) she met Denis Thatcher, a paint company executive who shared her passion for Conservative politics. The chemistry, as it were, was strong, Agar writes. Denis’s “professional interest in paint and mine in plastics may seem an unromantic foundation for a friendship, but it also enabled us right away to establish a joint interest in science,” she recalled in her memoir, The Path to Power.
Beyond that, what role did science play in Margaret Thatcher’s life? Many observers see none. Agar, though, argues that her hands-on experience in the lab made a difference in one of the earliest significant examples of what came to be known as Thatcherism, the free market economic policy she used to transform Britain’s heavily socialized postwar economy after she became Prime Minister in 1979. In 1971, while serving as Minister of Education and Science, against opposition from many scientists, she helped bring about, “a messy process of reform of government-funded science in which customer–contractor relationships figured strongly,” Agar writes. Many scientists argued that only experts should determine the direction of the nation’s research expenditures.
Thatcher could support the reforms, Agar argues, because she “had lived the life of the working research scientist, as a final-year chemistry student in Dorothy Hodgkin’s x-ray crystallography laboratory, as an investigator of glues for BX [plastics company] and as a food chemist for Lyons & Co. … [I]t was precisely because Thatcher knew what scientific research was like that made her impervious to claims that science was a special case, with special features and incapable of being understood by outsiders, and therefore that science policy should be left in the hands of scientists. Such a strategy of persuasion and protection might have considerable purchase on a science minister with no direct experience of the working life of a scientist, but not Thatcher.”