June Lindsey, a physical chemist who devoted the first chapters of her life to unravelling the complex structures of materials ranging from Vitamin B12 to codeine to components of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), was herself more than a trifle psychologically complex.
“It was hard, and seemingly almost impossible, to convince her that what she had done really, truly mattered,” is how Ottawa clinical scientist Alex MacKenzie has characterized her intrinsic contrarianism.
The most noteworthy example comes from her mathematically dense 1950 PhD thesis, which provided an underpinning to James Watson and Francis Crick’s legendary papers on the double-helical structure of DNA.
It was while reading her thesis that Dr. Watson had a flash of insight with “potentially profound implications,” the biologist wrote in his autobiographical book The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.
Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick’s revelation of the structure of DNA, was “arguably the most transformative discovery in human biology,” Dr. MacKenzie says, giving rise to the field of molecular biology, which involves the study of how genes control chemical processes within cells.
Yet almost to the end of her 99-year life, Dr. Lindsey strongly pushed back against efforts to have her work viewed as an essential cog in the Nobel Prize-winning discovery.
“I think what I did was minor really,” she told a reporter in 2019 when asked if she deserved more attention. Dr. Lindsey died in Ottawa on Nov. 4.
To understand why she consistently resisted people’s attempt to define her in terms of her scientific research, you have to follow the twisting flow of Dr. Lindsey’s life.
She was born June Broomhead on June 7, 1922, in a small village in Yorkshire, England. Her father, Frederick Broomhead, was an engineer in a coal mine and her mother, Florence (née Percival), was a housewife and devoted mother. One of her grandmothers had been a strict Methodist and the other a phantom-believing spiritualist.
Young June went to a local girls school and was the only student looking forward to pursuing a degree in science, thus the sole pupil in an upper-level science class.
A book she read at the age of 17, Grant Allen’s The Evolution of the Idea of God: An Inquiry into the Origin of Religions, had a profound effect on her, influencing her later attitudes about her own scientific accomplishments. After reading it, she became an agnostic about the existence of God and about humans’ sense of owning a superior place in the universe.
“We’re microbes, no different from worms or frogs, and have no more rights than any of them,” she pronounced when interviewed on the CBC in 2019.
In 1941, on a full scholarship, she entered one of the two colleges at the time that admitted women at the University of Cambridge, becoming also the first from her village school to attend the university.
She completed her undergraduate studies in 1944 but did not receive her degree because Cambridge didn’t grant degrees to women until 1948, even when they had passed their courses and fulfilled all the requirements.
During the war, she was recruited to teach in public schools for two years, but in 1946 she returned to Cambridge to work on her PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory. It had become one of the world’s centres for using X-rays to determine the structures of crystalline biological materials. For her, Cavendish was also an intellectual haven.
“Everybody met for tea at 4 p.m., and they talked about their work and other things and you listened to all these brilliant men talking about their lives,” adding “I was very impressed with them. I thought, ‘Oh, I really think that men are brighter than women.’”
It was a sentiment she repeated many times in her life, although her daughter, Jane, says she thinks that what Dr. Lindsey was trying to express is that men could concentrate solely on their scientific research while women also had to think about family.
Dr. Lindsey’s Cavendish supervisor told her that her thesis would be a determination of the structures of adenine and guanine, two of the four chemical bases that make up DNA. The project wasn’t a reflection of her personally being intrigued by DNA. “I didn’t know anything about DNA really,” she would later say.
It was a project that in a pre-computer age required an intense mathematical analysis of the structural “shadows” that X-rays created after being cast at various angles when passing through the crystallized forms of adenine and guanine. The outcome of her analysis, which took many months, was an image of the materials’ inner structure.
Dr. Lindsey also suggested in her thesis that it seemed likely that hydrogen was a bonding element between the DNA pair, a hypothesis that turned out to be accurate and key to Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick’s discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.
Dr. MacKenzie observed that when Dr. Watson saw a figure from her thesis depicting hydrogen bonds linking the adenine molecules “this seemingly trivial observation triggered a critical epiphany … as he worked out how the two strands of linear nucleic acids could be bound to one another.” More specifically, “looking at Lindsey’s work, Watson had realized the hydrogen bonds could serve as the ‘zipper’ for the two nucleic acid strands making up [DNA’s] double helix.”
What soon followed was an extremely short – 842-word – iconic paper by Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick in Nature magazine about DNA’s structure. There was no mention in that paper of contributions by Dr. Lindsey or others, but she was cited in a subsequent, more detailed, paper on the subject.
The crediting of other scientists who contributed to Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick’s work is a controversial subject, particularly with regard to Rosalind Franklin, another woman. Dr. Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, is considered by some to have been unjustly deprived of credit for her contribution because of the prevailing sexism of the era.
Dr. MacKenzie says, however, that he can list half a dozen or so people whose important contributions were also largely overlooked.
“I think it was a gender-non-specific ignoring,” he added.
Throughout her life, Dr. Lindsey vigorously denied that her own relative obscurity had anything to do with prejudice against women doing science. “I had no feelings I was ever discriminated against at all,” she said once with almost a clarion tone to her voice.
After helping to discern the structures of the two DNA elements, Dr. Lindsey went to work at Oxford with future Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin and there helped uncover the structure of Vitamin B12.
On Aug. 20, 1951, she married George Lindsey, a brilliant, relentlessly competitive Canadian nuclear physicist whom she had met at the Cavendish Laboratory. It was on the surface an uneven lineal linkage. The young woman from a Yorkshire village married a descendant of what might be viewed as English Canada’s elite. George Lindsey was related to both prime pinister William Lyon Mackenzie King and noted Polish engineer and bridge builder Casimir Gzowski.
When the pair left Britain that year to relocate to Canada, her departure was regretted by her colleagues. Nobel laureate Sir Lawrence Bragg sent her a letter a year later saying. “I only wish we had your help here at the present time. We badly need your hands to tackle knotty crystallographic problems.”
Dr. Lindsey had serious reservations about the move. “In the obituary for my father she said that she came to Canada in 1951 and then asked herself: What have I done?” Her son, Robin, recalls of his mother’s misgivings about leaving Cambridge.
While she did do some X-ray crystallography studies at the National Research Centre, she soon she retired from active laboratory science to look after her two children.
This was because running the household was more than a full-time job in a family where her husband was often working an 80-hour week as a military strategist for the Department of National Defence on missions so secret she didn’t know what his work had been until a book was published about him after his death.
Though the term hadn’t been invented yet, she was what might now be called a British Tiger Mother. When she didn’t feel her children were being treated rightly in school, she marched in to lecture their teachers. “She used to embarrass me when she would go in to complain about the educational system to my teachers,” her daughter, Jane, says.
She eventually took on part-time jobs teaching first-year physics students at Ottawa universities.
Perhaps her most ecstatic non-family moment occurred in 1998 when Cambridge righted in part its historical misogyny and granted Dr. Lindsey and 900 other “unofficial” female graduates their degrees. “My heart is in Cambridge,” she happily declared at the time.
In her later life she had a serendipitous encounter with Dr. MacKenzie at a birthday party for his mother-in-law in 2018. After inquiring about her scientific work, he became fascinated by what she had done, researched it, and then sought to give it the prominence he thought it deserved. His efforts were more than a little successful.
After he wrote a paper for a science journal, extolling her little-known work, Dr. Lindsey was profiled in newspaper and radio features, and fielded movie inquiries. A Wikipedia page was also created by a British researcher trying to increase the number of female scientists featured. The page now regularly receives more than 200 hits a day.
Still, almost to the end Dr. Lindsey resisted being transformed into a research celebrity. In part it may have been because she liked having strong and contrary opinions. “She could be quite outspoken in ways other people wouldn’t dare to say, she could be politically incorrect,” her daughter says. And in part it could have been that she was at a point in life where acclaim ceased to matter much.
“The older you get the more you realize you are of little consequence. We come and we go,” she said on the CBC.
Nor did she bemoan leaving a career in a revolutionizing area of science to devote the rest of her life to raising her two children.
“I had two children. I looked after them to the best of my ability, and they’ve done pretty well,” she proudly pronounced in her CBC interview. “I don’t regret that I have had quite an ordinary life.”
Jane reflects, however that her mother also took pleasure in eventually being open enough to change her mind. This seems to have happened at the end of her life, when it came to acknowledging her important contributions to the world of science.
In her bed on the day before she died, she pointedly told Dr. MacKenzie, whose efforts to garner more fame for her DNA research she had so often dismissed, “You changed my life.”
Dr. Lindsey was predeceased by her husband in 2011. She leaves her daughter, Jane, a senior research scientist at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; son, Robin, an economics professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia; daughter-in-law, Laura; and a granddaughter, Amanda.