World News

Thatcher, Ice Cream Pioneer, Is Nominated as Face of 50-Pound Note

Posted November 27, 2018 1:02 p.m. EST

LONDON — The Bank of England has decided to honor a scientist with its next bank note design. One of the nominees? Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister.

Thatcher held power for more than a decade from 1979, reshaping British politics. But she appears on the central bank’s initial list of some 800 names because of her time as a research chemist at a food company in the late 1940s, playing a disputed but much-discussed role in the history of ice cream.

The bank plans to introduce a new 50-pound note — the largest and rarest of its regular denominations, worth about $64 — in 2020, as part of a program replacing paper bills with sturdier polymer versions. Its bills feature Queen Elizabeth on one side and a historical figure on the other; the current 50-pound note has James Watt and Matthew Boulton, pioneers of the steam engine.

Nominations for a replacement are open until Dec. 14, but Monday the bank published the suggestions that had met its basic criteria so far.

“We have reviewed each ‘unique nomination’ to assess whether they are a real person, deceased and whether they have contributed to the field of science in the U.K. in any way,” a spokesman for the Bank of England said in a statement.

Other nominees include Alan Turing, the mathematician who played a key role in inventing modern computing, and Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin.

In the case of Thatcher, the bank’s statement added, the scientific contribution was “famously working on the research team which helped invent soft-scoop ice cream.”

Thatcher, then Margaret Hilda Roberts, studied chemistry at the University of Oxford, and after graduating she went to work as a chemist at J. Lyons, a British restaurant chain that also sold its own lines of food and, for a while, some of the world’s first business computers.

The claim that Thatcher helped invent soft-serve ice cream while at Lyons is widely distributed, even appearing in the address given at her funeral in 2013 by the then bishop of London, who described her as “part of the team that invented Mr. Whippy,” the major British soft-serve brand.

Charles Moore, her authorized biographer, is skeptical.

“She was quite a good chemist as a student at Oxford; she was a serious chemist,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

She worked at J. Lyons for about 18 months, he said. Of the soft-serve claim, he added: “I’ve never been able to establish that it’s definitely true.”

An article on Thatcher’s scientific career in “Notes and Records of the Royal Society,” a history-of-science journal, suggests the idea of her inventing soft-serve appealed to “British left circles,” who thought it fitting that a future free-market prime minister should have been involved in a product that “added air, lowered quality and raised profits.”

“Whatever she did, it wouldn’t be very important because it was a junior job,” Moore said, adding that she had already decided she would become a politician.

A petition to put Thatcher on the 50-pound note was started last month by a right-wing British political blog, Guido Fawkes, seemingly in part as a parody of a much-attacked but eventually successful feminist campaign for Jane Austen to appear on the 10-pound note.

“There are plans to hold a competition to design the new note, and with only one woman apart from the Queen featured on any of the new polymer notes so far, Guido has made a helpful suggestion in the interests of gender equality,” the petition read.

But Thatcher is not the only female scientist nominated. Others include Ada Lovelace, the mathematician who wrote the first computer program in 1843, and Dorothy Hodgkin, a pioneer in mapping molecular structures who was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and also taught Thatcher at Oxford.

Moore, the biographer, said the time was not yet ripe for Thatcher to appear on a bank note.

“In terms of distinction, I think she very much deserves it,” he said. “But when people are pictured in our currency, they should be from the more distant past.”

The only prime ministers to be pictured so far on Bank of England bills are the first Duke of Wellington, more famous for defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, who appeared on the 20-pound note until 1991; and Winston Churchill, who has appeared on the 5-pound note since 2016.