Howard Peters takes a look at the life of Margaret Thatcher, an Oxford chemistry graduate who became the UK’s only female prime minister

Margaret Thatcher was born Margaret Roberts on 13 October, 1925. Her family were not scientists or academics but grocers and it appears that Thatcher chose to study chemistry because of an inspiring chemistry teacher, Katie Kay. A local attorney, Norman Winning, also helped her decision when Thatcher was unsure about choosing chemistry over law, fearing she would be trapped. Winning, a physics graduate, said this was nonsense. ‘Science will make it easier to enter a lucrative field like patent law,’ he told her.

Thatcher applied to Oxford and was put on a waiting list for Somerville College. A last minute cancellation in October 1943 provided an opening and she exhibited her usual single-mindedness, accepting quickly, without a scholarship.

At Oxford

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was a significant mentor for the young Thatcher. Hodgkin was herself a Somerville graduate who had returned to teach chemistry, specialising in the emerging field of x-ray crystallography. Thatcher spent a year in Hodgkin’s laboratory, performing research on the structure of gramicidin B - the completion of which occurred about 30 years later.

During her time at Oxford, Thatcher’s interest in politics blossomed and in 1946 she became the third woman to be president of the powerful Oxford University Conservative Association. Her strong conservative views were at odds with those of her peers and her mentor (Hodgkin was a liberal and would become the president of the Pugwash Conferences, concerned with reducing the danger of armed conflict and seeking cooperative solutions for global problems). But despite these differences, Hodgkin and Thatcher kept in touch over the years and when Thatcher later became prime minister, she is reported to have installed Hodgkin’s portrait at 10 Downing Street.

Thatcher received a second class chemistry degree in June 1947 and subsequently applied for jobs in the chemical industry. Ironically, the traits that would one day make her a formidable leader were deemed unattractive by potential employers, with one interviewer noting: ‘This young woman has too strong a personality to work here!’ Eventually, however, she obtained a research position with British Xylonite Plastics near Colchester and later moved to J. Lyons, a foodstuff conglomerate in Hammersmith, performing tests on cakes and artificial ice cream. But she did not enjoy these jobs and began to regret not studying law. Chemistry was to help her with even this ambition, however, when she met and was courted by Denis Thatcher, then managing director of his family’s chemical and paint company. With his support, Thatcher was able to quit her chemist’s job to study law full-time. And the rest is history.

In power

Thatcher is the only prime minister of the UK to have had formal science training and experience and she had a considerable impact on scientific issues. Perhaps most famously, she raised and championed the issue of global warming, urging action in a speech to the UN general assembly in 1989 - the first leader of a major country to do so. Although she has subsequently expressed scepticism for climate change science, this instance has led many to view her as a climate change pioneer.

As a junior minister with the brief for science, she gave support to the Rothschild reforms that would see government funding weighted toward applied research, foreshadowing the market-driven policies that would define her government. However, she felt ‘deeply uneasy’ about removing funding from pure science. Her government also established the first research assessment exercise to determine the allocation of funding to universities based upon the quality of their research.

During a visit to the US, one report holds that Thatcher listened to President Ronald Reagan describe the ongoing ‘Star Wars’ military research programme and responded, ‘It won’t work and I know - because I am a chemist’. Thatcher even turned her hand to science communication, using the Downing Street kitchen to demonstrate the use of red cabbage as an indicator for a BBC TV series, recalling her background in both chemistry and grocery.

Thatcher’s policies were often controversial, however, and she remains a divisive figure. Her alma mater voted against awarding her an honorary degree during her premiership and many Oxford dons wrote at the time that Thatcher’s government ‘had done deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain’.

After resigning as prime minister in 1990, Thatcher was reluctant to accept any other position. But in 1993, she accepted the post of honorary chancellor at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, US. Private communications show that several invitations were extended for her to visit and participate in chemistry programmes, which Thatcher accepted. Alas, other college business took priority, but it would seem that even late in life she still held affection for her first subject.

In February 2007, Thatcher unveiled a silicon-bronze statue of herself in Parliament, erected in recognition of her contribution to British politics. ‘I might have preferred iron,’ she told those assembled. ‘But bronze will do: it won’t rust.’

Howard Peters is a chemical patent attorney (retired) in California, US