22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 16 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

CECILY LITTLETON, aged 95

SCIENCE IN THE FAMILY

Born Cecily Darwin in Edinburgh to Charles Galton Darwin and Katharine Pember. She had four younger brothers. She was the great granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

Her father was a celebrated English physicist, who worked on atomic theory and x-ray diffraction. He was the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University.

Her mother was a noted mathematician and the daughter of Francis Pember, a former first-class cricketer and Vice Chancellor of Oxford University.

Her grandmother was Martha Maud Darwin, part of the extremely wealthy Du Puy family of Philadelphia.

Others relatives by marriage included Thomas Huxley and John Maynard Keynes.

When Cecily was 13, the family moved to Cambridge because her father got the job of Master of Christ’s College. Later on, he worked on the Manhattan Project (developing the atomic bomb).

Cecily went to Somerville College, Oxford University and graduated in 1949, following in her father’s shoes as a physicist.

She then worked on x-ray crystallography with her friend Dorothy Hodgkin. It was a close partnership.

But Cecily chose to go to Philadelphia and work at the ICR (Institute of Cancer Research). She left Dorothy behind. Dorothy went on to win the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

In Philadelphia she became a research fellow. She worked with Raymond Pepinsky of Penn State and together they made significant advances in x-ray analysis.

Whilst working at ICR, she met John Littleton, a lawyer and musician, at a New Year’s Eve party. They were married in 1951 and had four children; Joanna, Sophie, Francis and Charles.

Wedding Day 1951 (courtesy Philadelphia Inquirer)

She wrote an acclaimed, ground-breaking article in 1953, in the scientific journal ‘ Acta Crystallographica’ entitled ‘A Structure Determination of Gluconaterion’. It was considered an important medical advancement.

In the early 1960s, Cecily changed her scientific direction and moved to Haverford College to work with astronomer Louis C. Green. They worked with rudimentary computers. The team included many women, unusual at the time. She studied stellar evolution, the internal structure of stars and much other cosmic activity.

She was fully engaged in the work. Despite their computers, she would take her work home. Every night she spread her graph paper over the dining room table, making celestial calculations with a slide rule.

Colleagues regarded her as charming, adventurous, well-read and very witty.

In 1980 she took another change of direction in her career. She enrolled at the Barnes College, a foundation with a significant art collection and an attached educational institute. She got a Horticultural certificate, qualifying as a landscape and garden designer.

When Cecily finally retired she was made a Member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, a member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and a trustee of the Museum of Wedgwood in Stoke (potter Josiah Wedgwood was also a relation). She was a regular churchgoer and a socialite.

On the 2nd November 1989, Darwin Day at the Academy of Natural Sciences, she donated her great grandfather Charles Darwin’s chair to the organisation. It came from his home, Down House in Kent. It now sits in a display in their Rare Book Room.

In the 1990s, Cecily began to travel extensively. She particularly loved China.  She kept scrapbooks of all of her activities.

In 2002, they moved to Haverford.

Her husband John died in 2009.

All four of her brothers, eminent scientists in their own right, predeceased her.

At her death her family said, “She had a wide-ranging curiosity, keen observation and a scientifically trained mind.”

RIP – Reinvented Intellectual (of) Philadelphia.

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