Polly Porter rolls the stones

Polly Porter. The name sounds more like a character in a young-adult adventure story from the early 20th century than a serious scientist. The many books and papers she published – such as “Crystallographic descriptions of some pyridine and picoline derivatives”, in 1921, were under her birth name, Mary Winearls Porter, but to her family and friends she was Polly.

She was born in Norfolk, north of London, on 26 July 1886. Her father, Robert Percival Porter, was a foreign correspondent for The Times of London, who, according to accounts, believed “education was superfluous for women”; consequently his daughter was taught reading and writing at home but did not receive a formal education.

Nevertheless, she went on to become “the pioneering female crystallographer” and a mentor to Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, the 1964 Nobel laureate in chemistry, says the journal Chemistry World.

According to the Cambridge University department of biochemistry: “X-ray crystallography produces high-resolution models of proteins to allow an understanding of their structure and function at the atomic level.

“The process begins by growing a crystal of the protein of interest that contains millions of copies of that protein arranged in an ordered and regularly repeating fashion. When an X-ray beam is directed through these crystals, electrons within the ordered proteins diffract the X-rays in an interpretable manner. Through analysing the pattern of diffraction, the electron density within the protein of interest can be elucidated, which is then used to create a model of the protein’s structure. These structures give scientists essential insights into human health and disease.”

Porter’s path to science began in 1901 at age 15 in Rome, Italy, where her family was staying. Chemistry World explains that while exploring Roman ruins she was fascinated by the stone used in the buildings, both for construction and decoration, and she made a collection of various types of marble fragments. 

In 1902 the Porter family returned to Britain and settled in Oxford, where Polly was drawn to the University of Oxford Natural History Museum and the Corsi collection – 1000 different polished slabs of decorative stone, collected in the early 19th century by Roman lawyer Faustino Corsi, and which included ancient Roman samples along with Italian stones from medieval times to his own day, plus a selection of decorative rocks and minerals from England, Russia, and other countries.

Her repeated visits to the long-neglected collection attracted the attention of Royal Society member Henry Miers, a researcher and teacher in the fields of mineralogy and crystallography. He put Porter to work cleaning the specimens, updating their identifications and labelling, and translating the original catalogue from Italian to English.

The work with Miers in Oxford gave Porter the material with which to write and publish her 1907 monograph, “What Rome Was Built With: A Description of the Stones Employed in Ancient Times for its Building and Decoration”.

In 1910, Miers introduced Porter to Alfred Tutton, himself something of a prodigy, having left school at 14, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Science in London, where in 1886 he graduated with honours in geology, physics, and chemistry, becoming a lecturer in chemical analysis, and maintaining a crystallographic laboratory.

Tutton offered Porter a job in his London laboratory, and she went to work “studying the synthesis of crystals of new ionic compounds containing two different cations (now called Tutton’s salts) and studying the effect of changes in the cation identities on the crystal form”, Chemistry World says.

Tutton published the results of the work, “Crystallographic constants and isomarphous relations of the double chromates of the alkalis and magnesium”, in 1912 in the Journal of the Mineralogical Society, with Porter as co-author.

Porter, meanwhile, had remained with her family when her father’s work took them to the United States, and she found employment cataloguing the mineral collection of the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC. Two years later found the family in Germany, and Porter went to work on the Mineralogical State Collection in Munich.

In 1913 Porter was again in the US, where she made an important connection, studying at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania under renowned American geologist Florence Bascom, the first woman to receive a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, in 1893.

Bascom arranged for Porter to return to Germany as a research student at the University of Heidelberg under German mineralogist and crystallographer Victor Goldschmidt, called the “father of modern geochemistry” by the Geochemical Society.

Porter’s travels eventually landed her back in Britain, at Oxford University, starting crystallography studies with prolific researcher Thomas Vipond Barker, who agreed to be her supervisor in her quest to earn a Bachelor of Science degree; such degrees were available to students who had completed two years of research and had their thesis approved by a board of examiners.

In June 1918 she received a BSc certificate, but not a formal degree – these were unavailable to women until 1920.

She was given a research fellowship from Somerville College, Oxford, allowing her to continue her studies, which resulted in a series of publications and eventually a doctorate in 1932.

Chemistry World says Porter’s “work in later years, sadly, proved to be a backwater of crystallographic science. Nevertheless, her life-story is inspiring in the extreme and it is our contention that she was the first of the pioneering women in this field.”

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