Kathleen Lonsdale

One of the many remarkable women featured in the Quaker Tapestry is Kathleen Lonsdale. Kathleen was one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945, served as President of the British Association and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1956.

Born in Ireland in 1903, Kathleen Yardley was the youngest of ten children, brought up in poverty in an Irish Baptist family who moved to England when she was young. Educated by scholarships Kathleen studied science and gained a BSc at Bedford College London, attaining the highest marks in the University.

Kathleen worked in London as a research assistant to Sir William Bragg for five years before marrying a colleague, Thomas Lonsdale. They moved to Leeds where Kathleen took up a scholarship but after two years, having completed her DSc, she took a break in her career to care for their children while they were young.

In 1935 Kathleen joined the Society of Friends by convincement and returned to work as a Leverhulme research fellow. She returned to Sir William Bragg’s team at the Royal Institution from 1937-1942, and stayed there until 1949 when she became Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Crystallography at University College London, a post which she held until her retirement in 1968.

Kathleen Lonsdale discovered the structure of the hexamethylbenzene molecule and also investigated the structure of diamonds and the magnetism of crystals. She was one of the first two women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945, served as President of the British Association and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1956.

In 1943 Kathleen had been imprisoned in Holloway because of her pacifist convictions and this experience gave her a special insight into her work for penal reform. Her radical pacifism also gave her a lively interest in world affairs and in 1953 during the ‘Cold War’ she was one of the first party of Quakers to go to Russia.

For all her many degrees, titles and honours Kathleen remained unassuming in manner and plain in lifestyle, enjoying simple pleasures such as riding pillion on her husband’s motorbike. She continued her research after her retirement, but became ill with bone marrow cancer and died in University College Hospital in 1971 at the age of 68.

Depicted alongside her portrait is her book ‘Crystals and X-Rays’ and a diagrammatic representation of an X-Ray tube, allows a narrow beam of X-Ray to fall on the crystal, her experiments allowed her to deduce the precise structure of crystals. The son of Kathleen Lonsdale said that this embroidery of his mother was the best picture he had of her.  Another personal friend exclaimed, “That’s exactly her hair. She never could do anything with it!”

The Scientists panel, featuring Kathleen Lonsdale, commemorates three out of over eighty Quakers who have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society. The panel was researched mainly by Winifred Booker of Liskeard and Looe Quaker Meeting, and embroidered by a very small group from that meeting. Winifred was responsible for the amazing portraits.

Some other remarkable women depicted in the Quaker Tapestry include Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry and Mary Hughes. See the embroideries for yourself here at our museum in Kendal, Lake District, marvel at their detail and learn more about the amazing lives these women led. For visitor information please visit our website.

4 comments on “Kathleen Lonsdale

  1. Dick on

    Thank you for sharing about this remarkable lady bc we would not have known her.
    Dick Patterson, member of Cincinnati Friends Meeting

  2. Audrey Wilson on

    Thankyou for sharing this panel. I didn’t know Kathleen was the first female elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
    I am a retired academic and have been a Quaker for about 40 years now and am a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry so have a special interest in this new panel.
    I look forward to seeing these new panels when we next visit Kendal.

    • Vanessa Eaves on

      Thank you for commenting. Glad to hear that this blog has highlighted Kathleen Lonsdale and the Scientists panel to you. We look forward to welcoming you at the Museum here in Kendal


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“Embroidery was the medium that provided the opportunities for this experiment in education, communication and community experience.”

Anne Wynn-Wilson, founder of the Quaker Tapestry