Margaret Thatcher, the Scientist

By Chris Mills on at

Margaret Thatcher's death has had, erm, mixed reactions, from gushing editorials to merry renditions of Tramp the Dirt Down. But one thing they've largely failed to mention is that before she spent twenty years fighting off unions and steadfastly not turning, she was a rather successful scientist.

Miss Margaret Roberts, as she was known before wedding long-suffering husband Denis Thatcher, won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, to study chemistry. Her motivation to play with chemicals isn't clear -- although she studied sciences at sixth form, various biographers have stated that she only chose chemistry because "there were few women's colleges and therefore fewer places … she seems to have decided rather coolly and calculatingly that for a girl Chemistry was the best examination bet."

Others are even more forthright, suggesting that her real motivation "was also the attraction of invading and succeeding in what was considered a man's domain", which, to be fair, sounds rather more like the Thatcher the rest of the country knows.

Either way, the future PM arrived at Oxford in 1943, and amidst the carnage of air-raids and rationing, managed to make a perfectly average impression. According to the dean of the college:

"She was a perfectly adequate chemist. I mean nobody thought anything of her. She was a perfectly good second-class chemist, a beta chemist."

After spending three years studying undergraduate chemistry, Thatcher sat her exams and started on her fourth-year dissertation, a study of antibiotic gramicidin S using X-rays. (The S there stands for Soviet -- perhaps Maggie was getting in early on the whole 'know-your-enemy' thing.)

After graduating, Thatcher (despite her budding political ambitions) chose to take the corporate shilling, and became a glue scientist for British Xylonite (BX) Plastics in 1947.  She wasn't exactly over the moon for her new job -- saying "very few people greatly enjoy the early stages of a new job, and in this I was no exception" -- but she stuck with it (pun not entirely intended) for a few years, until political demands made her move elsewhere.

Her next job, which she started in 1949, was a wee bit more exciting -- still in chemistry, this role was for cake-maker J. Lyons, working in 'quality control' for cake-fillings and ice cream (the perfect job, in other words). Although she was working in testing, she also dabbled in R&D while at Lyons, discovering emulisfiers for ice cream. Urban legend even has it that she invented 'soft' ice cream, the name given to ice cream which has double the air, and can therefore be handily dispensed out of a spigot into the waiting maw of an ice-cream cone. Soft ice cream was certainly invented by Lyons at the time Thatcher was working there; whether or not Maggie can add it (and a tag-along obesity epidemic, if you're being cynical) to her CV is unsure, but hey, at least ice cream is a refreshingly non-standard career path for a politician.

The job at Lyons barely lasted two years: in 1951, Thatcher quit, and went back to school to become a tax lawyer (boo). But her influence on science doesn't end there; as a politician, she was also pretty science-savvy. When the Conservatives made their long-awaited return to power in 1970, Maggie was appointed the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

In that position, Thatcher turned round the previous government's policy on scientific funding. Her view on 'big' government and over-zealous public spending is, of course, rather dim; but that view also extended to scientific funding. Thatcher laid out plans to cut £20 million for large-scale projects -- where, in her words, "the non-scientists sometimes outnumber the scientists" -- and re-invested the money in hundreds of young researchers, whose funding needs were much smaller (as was the bureaucracy).

It was a controversial decision -- 121 scientists and doctors signed letters of protest to The Times -- but one that has brought about a marked change in science policy since. Rather than technology and science being 'too complicated' for outsiders to understand, and thus a 'special case' for funding, Thatcher politicised science funding, making it just like any other part of the government budget -- a change that Jon Agar argues is a result of Thatcher's time spent working as a research scientist.

Thatcher's other scientific legacy of note was her early concern for climate change. In a  speech to the Royal Society (of which she was a Fellow) in 1988, Thatcher highlighted concerns about rising carbon dioxide levels, on account of an increased use of fossil fuels and extensive deforestation, with rhetoric worthy of the most doom-mongering Greenpeace activist:

"With all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself."

She was also concious of the problems with the ozone layer, and he acidification of soil from acid rain -- both problems the world is still wrestling with.

So, love or hate the great old iron battleship, her scientific training and awareness were remarkable. In the current era of politicians who go straight from Oxbridge politics degrees, into political research and then straight into Parliament, it's refreshing to think that there was a politician out there who worked a real-world job, no matter how briefly. And hey, she might've invented soft ice cream; screw privatisation or union reforms, that's a real legacy. [Thatcher, Scientist - Speech to the Royal Society - Wikipedia - Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady]