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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Georgina Ferry

Olga Kennard obituary

Olga Kennard of the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre
Olga Kennard felt that ‘the community exploitation of data will lead to the discovery of new knowledge which surpasses the findings of individual investigations’. Photograph: Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre

With every advance in technology that scientists use to explore the detail of the natural world, there is a corresponding surge in the amount of data for researchers to analyse. One of the first to realise that setting up a central repository for such data would stimulate further discovery was the crystallographer Olga Kennard, who has died aged 98. The Cambridge Structural Database (CSD), which she launched in 1965 and managed for 32 years, is now an essential resource for researchers in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and materials as well as basic researchers in universities around the world.

Crystallography is a method of discovering the arrangement of atoms within a molecule by analysing patterns of X-rays diffracted by crystals of the substance under study. Working in a Cambridge University department, but without the security of a university position or college fellowship, Kennard established the Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre (CCDC) in 1965. At the same time she set up the CSD, taking on the task of converting the 3,000 or so known X-ray structures of small organic molecules into machine-readable form.

With a few assistants, she also worked to solve the structures of molecules that play roles in the biochemistry of the living body. Their biggest triumph (in 1971) was the structure of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the molecule that stores and releases energy to power processes such as muscle contraction, blood circulation and nervous system activity. But the database was always Kennard’s priority. She and her team scoured the journals for newly published structures, checked and corrected them, encoded them electronically and entered them in the thematically structured database, first released as a series of books and later searchable online.

Over time the CCDC also developed software tools to represent the molecules graphically and assist with data analysis. While initially it lived somewhat hand to mouth on short-term grants, it soon became an essential resource and eventually managed to support itself through a licensing model. In 1992 it moved into its own new building adjacent to the chemistry department. Kennard commissioned a Danish architect, Erik Christian Sørensen (who had previously designed her house), and the centre won the Sunday Times building of the year award in 1993.

Kennard was eventually persuaded to retire in 1997, when she was 73 years old. Since then the CCDC has continued as a self-funded, not-for-profit enterprise: it logged its millionth chemical structure in 2019 and is still going strong. The CSD inspired further similar projects, launched with Kennard’s advice, including the Protein Data Bank and the Nucleic Acid Sequence Database.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Olga was the eldest of three children of Kato (Katerina, nee Sternberg) and Joir Weisz, a merchant banker. Joir fled to England in 1938 because of rising antisemitism in the region, and arranged for Kato, with Olga and her younger siblings Judith and George, to join him there. They left Hungary in August 1939, two weeks before the outbreak of the second world war, taking a terrifying railway journey across Nazi Germany. Despite her limited English, Olga excelled first at Hove County girls’ school and (after her school was evacuated) at Prince Henry’s grammar school (now Prince Henry’s high school) in Evesham, Worcestershire.

Kennard on the 50th anniversary of CCDC.
Kennard on the 50th anniversary of the CCDC in 2015. Photograph: Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre

The family settled in Edgware, north London, where Joir worked as an accountant and Kato dealt in antiques. The Weisz parents fostered a love of art and culture in their children and impressed on them the importance of education. George studied engineering and became an entrepreneur and philanthropist. Both Olga and Judith gained places at Newnham College, Cambridge. Judith qualified as a doctor and moved to the US, where she conducted research on contraceptives and breast cancer. Olga studied natural sciences, specialising in physics and mineralogy.

One of very few women in physics at Cambridge, after taking a two-year degree she began work in 1944 as a research assistant with Max Perutz in the Cavendish Laboratory. Perutz was a chemist who was using X-ray crystallography to study the structure of haemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. As well as assisting him with this project, still far from completion, Kennard solved the structure of a small organic molecule. “It was a ridiculous little structure,” she later told me, “but it was the first structure [of such a molecule] anybody in the Cavendish had ever done.”

To her great disappointment it “wasn’t deemed appropriate” for her to do research leading to a PhD at Cambridge. In 1948 she moved to London, where she joined the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council (MRC), first at the Institute of Ophthalmology and then at the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) in Mill Hill. There, under the influence of the physicist JD Bernal of Birkbeck College, she became involved in collating crystallographic data for international tables. She later wrote that the two of them shared “an intense belief that the community exploitation of data will lead to the discovery of new knowledge which surpasses the findings of individual investigations”.

In 1962 Sir Alexander Todd, chair of chemistry at Cambridge, agreed to host a crystallography group under Kennard’s leadership in his department. She remained seconded from the MRC until her retirement, never holding a Cambridge University position. According to her former research assistant Neil Isaacs, now emeritus professor at the University of Glasgow, the inflexibility of Cambridge’s rules led to some ridiculous situations, such as her assistants not being able to read in the university library without supervision.

Elsewhere her contributions were widely recognised. She held a number of roles in scientific organisations, including president of the European Crystallographic Committee (1975-81). After she stepped down from her role as director of the CCDC in 1997 she pursued her interests in art, architecture and design, and became a trustee of the British Museum from 2004 to 2012.

She also received many honours. The University of Cambridge awarded her a doctorate of science in 1973, saving her the embarrassment of telling people not to call her Dr Kennard. At the same time she became a fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. It meant a great deal to her to be admitted as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1987. She was appointed OBE in 1988.

Kennard had two daughters, Susie and Julia, from her 1948 marriage to David Kennard, a medical doctor and psychiatrist, which ended in divorce in 1961. In 1993 she married the pharmacologist and former master of Darwin College, Cambridge, Sir Arnold Burgen, who died in 2022. She is survived by Susie and Julia, and by five grandchildren.

• Olga Kennard (Lady Burgen), crystallographer, born 23 March 1924; died 1 March 2023

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