Seeing the Structure of Molecules: Elizabeth Wood's Crystal Orientation Manual

August 04, 2020

Seeing the Structure of Molecules: Elizabeth Wood's Crystal Orientation Manual

Elizabeth A. Wood's Crystal Orientation Manual is an introductory guide to one of the most revelatory scientific developments of the 20th century: x-ray crystallography. This technique, in which x-rays are used to visualise electron density in a crystallised substance, allows researchers to precisely determine the atomic structures of important molecules, not only minerals but also bio-active substances such as pharmaceuticals, hormones, and proteins. Learning their structures advanced our understanding of numerous physiological processes and made it easier to recreate these substances in the lab for research or medical use. Most famously, UK crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin determined the structures of insulin, vitamin B12, and penicillin, and Rosalind Franklin did cutting-edge work on coal, graphite, viruses, and DNA and RNA. 

In the United States, another crystallographer made signifiant contributions while working as the first female scientist at Bell Laboratories. Elizabeth Wood (1912-2006) was educated at Bryn Mawr, where she became an instructor in geology. Following teaching stints at Barnard and Columbia she joined Bell Labs in 1942 and remained there for the next twenty-four years. Wood’s interests “ranged from the growth of single crystals with useful semiconducting, lasing, magnetic or superconducting properties to the crystallographic investigation of new materials with unusual properties such as the exhibition of both ferromagnetism and piezoelectricity. She also worked on material phases that could be changed by the application of appropriately oriented electric fields and on the formation of new superconductors” (International Union of Crystallographers obituary).

Wood was a highly respected scientist, whose advice was often sought by colleagues. She was also a talented science writer, publishing books for both popular and professional audiences, including a best-selling book on the science of airplane travel.

“Her reputation for clearly written texts spread as a result of her Rewarding Careers for Women in Physics (1962) and Pressing Needs in School Sciences (1969) published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in 1962. It became wider still with the publication of her Crystal Orientation Manual in 1963, which expounded the art and science of preparing shaped pieces of large accurately oriented single crystals for technicians" (International Union of Crystallographers obituary)

Crystal Orientation Manual, first published in 1963, was designed for "chemists, physicists, engineers, and technicians who are today confronted with the problem of obtaining a slice or rod of suitable orientation for their experiments have not had crystallographic training", as Wood put it in the introduction. It was spiral-bound so that the pages would lie flat, making it easier to consult while working, and includes numerous illustrations and charts visualising the complex chemistry of crystals and how to prepare them for study. 

In addition to her work at Bell Labs, Wood was active in professional societies, serving as secretary of the American Society for X-Ray and Electron Diffraction and leading its merger with the Crystallographic Society of America. In addition to drafting the constitution for the resulting organisation, the American Crystallographic Association, she was elected its first female president in 1957.  Wood's "deep interest in improving the scientific understanding of the general public was recognized by the ACA’s establishment of an Elizabeth A. Wood Science Writing Award" (IUC obituary).