Thatcher, Scientist

Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, don’t you know?

It’s one of those little facts that pops up in UK science policy discourse every now and again. Just this week, in a debate the Royal Institution on the structure of scientific careers, Evan Harris joked ‘how do we keep more women like Margaret Thatcher in science?’ (i.e. and out of politics…).

We don’t necessarily expect women to be scientists, or politicians. Neither do we expect politicians to be scientists. That Thatcher was all of these things occasionally pops up as a little titbit of trivia. It seems to fit a nice little sideline when discussing Tory science policy, or as a thread to the various stories surrounding the odd glamour of Thatcher’s public image. Newton invented the catflap. Einstein wore odd socks. And that ‘Margaret-Thatcher Milk-Snatcher’? Well, she was one of the boffins behind how to put extra air in Mr Whippy ice-cream! There was a wink to it in the a recent BBC drama about about her early political career. I wonder if it’ll make the movie?

For all it’s mentioned, the idea of Thatcher as a scientist is never really explored though. Until now, as historian of science and technology, Jon Agar has bothered to do a bit of digging on this, published this week in Notes and Records of the Royal Society.

The paper has two halves. Firstly, Agar talks about Thatcher’s pre-political career as a scientist. He then goes on to talk about her time in politics, in particular the ways in which her first-hand knowledge of the mundane, material, practical life of the working researcher framed decisions she made in the early 1970s, whilst Secretary of State for Education (minister holding science brief at the time).

Thatcher was a scientist for about a decade, at least if you include training as time spent as a scientist (which I guess you can). She studied science at school and then, in 1942, moved on to a chemistry degree in Oxford, working with Dorothy Hodgkin, and Janet Vaughan. Apparently she was a ‘good’ chemistry student, competent but more enthused by politics, and happy to admit that she probably should have studied law. After graduation, she worked for four years as an industrial chemist (at British Xylonite Plastics and  Lyons). He stresses that she was, as an industrial food chemist, in many ways a more ‘typical’ twentieth-century scientific figure than iconic characters like Albert Einstein. This overlapped with the start of her political career, and a photo of a lab-coated Miss Margaret Roberts (before her marriage), surrounded by bottles in a lab and pouring something into a conical flask, was used in a publicity campaign for the 1951 election.

That story about the airy icecream? Not true. Or at least Agar can’t find any evidence for it. It sounds like she mainly did theoretical work on soap making, and possibly some cake-filling quality testing (Agar, 2011: 4-5).

(Boring historians with their evidence, spoiling everyone’s fun. I’m pretty sure Newton didn’t invent the catflap either by the way, and the thing about Florence Nightingale and piecharts seems pretty dodgy. I have no idea about Einstein’s socks. Personally, I like to think he knitted his own, and don’t want to burst the illusion by actually checking).

However, Agar’s pulled out a narrative that’s a bit more intellectually nourishing than trivia about ice cream. And no, I don’t mean the cake-filling testing, though obviously I’m super-curious about that. He takes a story from reasonably early-on in Thatcher’s political career: science policy reforms proposed in 1971 by Lord Rothschild (himself, a biologist by training, and later research director at Royal Dutch-Shell) which stressed market forces, articulating the government as ‘customers’ and research communities as ‘contractors’. Thatcher, the minister with the science brief, was initially against these reforms, but changed her mind, a shift which Agar suggests may be part of the story of her move towards what later became known as ‘Thatcherism’.

The changes were not liked by the scientific establishment. The Royal Society argued they should be consulted, not just as a relevant professional association but because, as scientists, they should have autonomy from political direction. Framing Thatcher’s view on this in terms of her developing political philosophy, Agar argues that for her, science represented the best of the public economy: research councils were, along with grammar schools and Oxbridge, places where the public economy worked. Moreover, she saw it as a source for wealth, which for her, justified public spending. But this same justification made it a test case for her emerging views on economic liberalism: ‘If markets could work for science policy, they could work anywhere’ (Agar, 2011: 12). Moreover, because Thatcher had worked as a scientist, she understood it at a very mundane level; its nuts, bolts, labcoats, conical flasks and theories of soap production. As such, she was impervious to lobbying that of science as a special case, with special features, incapable of being understood by outsiders. As Agar concludes: ‘Thatcher, who lived both worlds [science and politics], saw no separation, in principle and in practice.’ (Agar, 2011: 13).

Poking at the idea that simply getting scientists and those with ‘an understanding of science’ (whatever that is) in parliament will necessarily serve the scientific establishment is, I’d argue, a much more interesting outcome of researching Thatcher the scientist than QI-style discussions of any involvement she may or may not have had in the production of cheap icecream. It also helps dispel the idea that politically engaged science in the UK is necessarily left-leaning (even if groups like Save British Science or individuals like JD Bernal might make it seem so). Scientists come in a range of guises. Thatcher had hers and it coloured her view. In many ways it’s a rather typical one even, if it doesn’t fit everyone’s preferred image of the scientist.

You can read Agar’s paper for yourself, there’s no paywall (edit: at least for this week). Moreover, it’s a very readable bit of scholarly writing, with a fair amount of dry humour and the odd moment of dramatic characterisation. There’s also an accompanying video podcast where Agar introduces the paper (because even publications in Notes and Records of the Royal Society have trailers these days).

13 thoughts on “Thatcher, Scientist

  1. alice Post author

    Something else to say about this paper is that I really like the way in which Agar stresses the institutional history on the run up to the 1971 decision (stretching back to the early 30s). Part of this history is that it’s not just about big iconic characters like Thatcher.

    And on that point, just in terms of the drama of the paper, I also like that it’s a moment relatively early on in her career where she isn’t necessarily all that powerful that he focuses in on.

  2. Neil

    A very minor point, but she wasn’t necessarily working on ‘soap-making’ itself. From Agar’s article:
    “She certainly researched saponification, a chemical process named after, but not necessarily implying, soap making”

    A saponification reaction is more generally cleavage of an ester with a base, which is the key step in making soap (all those lovely fatty acid esters) – but also a potentially useful reaction elsewhere.

    Minor, but hopefully will stop the ‘You know she made Mr Whippy’ comments becoming ‘Of course, she was just making soap’ in future!

    1. alice Post author

      Damn you chemists spoiling my fun… :)

      Thank you though, you are right to give that clarification.

      I still want to know about the cake fillings.

  3. Richard

    Question is, did Thatcher’s work as an undergraduate and in industry really amount to her thinking she understood or could ‘live in’ the science world?

    Wasn’t her experience of this world limited to the industrial part of it where the endpoint is clearly defined (filling cakes, saponification reactions with higher yields/fewer side products)?

    Doing that sort of useful but not paradigm-shifting work doesn’t necessarily amount to an understanding of the world of the research scientist and the autonomy that scientists argue they need [‘If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research’ etc etc].

    1. alice Post author

      Mmm, I think you are right to be suggest difference there – it was sort of behind my point in parenthesis about whether you can claim training counts for time at as a scientist.

      Still, I think Agar’s point that in some ways she was a more typical scientist than Einstein is a salient one and that this distinction is maybe overstated in some political rhetoric? (though equally part of the power of argument, I’d say, is that there really is no such thing as a typical scientist…)

    2. Rebekah Higgitt

      But isn’t the fact that Thatcher was not a research scientist kind of the point? As Alice says, Thatcher’s story helps us “Pok[e] at the idea that simply getting scientists and those with ‘an understanding of science’ (whatever that is) in parliament will necessarily serve the scientific establishment “. It also reminds everyone, including science lobbists, that talking about ‘science’ and ‘scientists’ when you really mean ‘research’ and ‘research scientists’ (probably university- rather than industry-based ones at that) can be unhelpful.

      1. alice Post author

        There’s a bit of reflection on this in the paper with respect not just to Rothschild’s career, but other scientists in his family.

  4. Penny Walker

    I was at Friends of the Earth when she made her defining speech on climate change in teh late 1980s (although I don’t think she used that term: and see also interesting thread about it here:

    Because she was so far from being a ‘usual suspect’ on environmental matters, this speech generated enormous interest and at FOE we were rushed off our feet responding directly to it and in the upswell of awareness and interest which followed.

    I have always thought her scientific background led her to take this issue more seriously than non-science politicians, and made this unusual coincidence of interest possible.

    1. alice Post author

      Interesting links, thanks – fascinating to see Thatcher’s scientific background being used as part of political discussion/ rhetoric today. It popped up a bit in the science vote stuff last year, but not much. I wonder if there’ll be more or less of it in the future, especially with respects to climate science.

      There’s a line about environmental science in the paper (got the impression it wasn’t held in quite the same regard as other areas though…).

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  6. Sage

    Well, it seems the “aerating ice-cream” thing is actually not an urban myth after all. It apparently happened whilst working for food manufacturer ‘J. Lyons and Co’, where a group of scientists (of which Thatcher was part) deciphered a way to add double the amount of air to a ‘soft-scoop’ type of ice-cream, which would enable it to be pumped from a machine, (& therefore at half the cost). … On a TV program by chef Heston Blumenthal recently, he’s team actually managed to unearth a photo of Thatcher and her team around just such a machine.

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