Feature Story | 2-Mar-2023

Obituary: Dr. Olga Kennard OBE FRS, Founder of the Cambridge Structural Database, 1924 – 2023

Celebrating a visionary scientist's contributions and legacy which continues to support the global development of new drugs and materials

CCDC - Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre

It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of Dr Olga Kennard. Her long, successful life was full of many achievements, including founding the Cambridge Structural Database (CSD) that is now a fundamental resource that supports the global development of new drugs and materials that benefit us all, is used in chemistry education, and the advancement of science. In this obituary for Dr Kennard we celebrate and recognize her many achievements in the scientific community.

Dr Jürgen Harter, CEO, CCDC, expresses his condolences and gives thanks for Dr Kennard’s vision:

“Our thoughts and condolences extend to Dr Kennard’s family and friends at this time of great sadness. Not only is it a time for mourning, but it is also a time for celebration by everyone connected to the CCDC and the wider structural science community of Olga’s many achievements, including the foundation of the CSD. This was made possible by her drive and determination to overcome the status quo with visionary foresight. I am sure many pharmaceuticals and materials that we all benefit from today would not have been discovered if it wasn’t for Dr Kennard.”

Dr Jürgen Harter, CEO, CCDC

To commemorate Dr Kennard’s passing and celebrate her life we share a previously unpublished interview with her that was recorded in 2011 by William Town, former Chair of the Governing Board of Trustees, CCDC, as part of a Living History series. You can watch the video interview here.

Born in Hungary, Dr Kennard moved to the UK in 1939 just before the outbreak of the second world war. After graduating from the University of Cambridge in 1944 she joined the Cavendish Laboratory under Lawrence Bragg as an assistant to Max Perutz in the Department of Physics.

After completing the first X-ray structure at the Laboratory (albeit on a very small structure), Dr Kennard moved to London in 1948, and then to the Chemistry Department at Cambridge University in 1962. At this point it was difficult to solve larger structures with crystallography, and very unusual for crystallographers to be in a chemistry department. Crystallographers often experienced suspicion from more traditional chemists who thought this ‘upstart subject’ was taking over their territory.

Dr Kennard persevered and persuaded the department to purchase a diffractometer, the first to be used for small molecule studies. Working with a small but gradually increasing group, supported by the Medical Research Council, Dr Kennard and colleagues worked on a variety of medical compounds including antibiotics and (excitingly) the structure of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

As the volume of structural data increased, Dr Kennard along with Dr J. D. Bernal had a vision that the collective use of data would lead to new knowledge and generate insights:

"We (sic. J. D. Bernal and I) had a passionate belief that the collective use of data would lead to the discovery of new knowledge which transcends the results of individual experiments"

Dr Olga Kennard

This vision led to the founding of the the CSD in 1965. From its humble beginnings, the CSD ​now contains over 1.2M small-molecule organic and metal-organic crystal structures. Continually growing, big-data learnings from the collective results are used globally to advance scientific research into pharmaceuticals, functional materials, catalysts, and more in both commercial and academic research.

During her 1995 J. D. Bernal lecture, Dr Kennard had no doubt as to the future value of the database:

"I think that the great ocean of truth is still in front of us and we will continue to discover new aspects of this truth."

Dr Olga Kennard

Dr Kennard went on to lead the CCDC until 1997 and authored over 140 structures during her career. One of her first structures with coordinates was published back in 1963 and was a chlorobenzoate salt (CSD refcode MSCBZO). Her more recent examples include a uridine structure, which was published in 1991 (CSD refcode JOSCAV).

Dr Ian Bruno, now Director of Data Initiatives at the CCDC, remembers first meeting Dr Kennard on his first day at the CCDC in 1993.

“I first met Dr Kennard in 1993 when I came to the CCDC to interview for what became my first job following my PhD. “

“Frank Allen, then Deputy Director of the CCDC, led me to Dr Kennard’s office and introduced me. I was immediately struck by her formidable sense of presence. In the years that followed, I came to appreciate her commitment to achieving the best for the CCDC and her consideration for those helping to deliver on its mission. She had a wit that could be as disarming as it was sharp and a curiosity that was still evident when I encountered her again much later in life.” 

“The Cambridge Structural Database preserves the legacy of a community, enabling data generated by crystallographers worldwide to be reused and applied by future generations. This lives on as Dr Kennard’s legacy and as a testament to her determination and drive to establish the CSD as a respected and lasting resource much valued by the scientific community and benefitting wider society.”

Dr Ian Bruno, Director of Data Initiatives, CCDC

Recognition for Lifetime Achievements

Dr Kennard’s huge contribution to crystallography was recognised by many prestigious awards, prizes, and elections to learned societies.

In 1987 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and, in recognition of her work, there is the Royal Society Olga Kennard Research Fellowship in crystallography.

An OBE for ‘Services to Scientific Research on the Structure of Biological Molecules’ followed in 1988.

In 1993 Dr Kennard was elected a member of the Academia Europaea and a Doctor of Law honoris causa was awarded to her by the University of Cambridge in 2003.

She won the Gmelin-Beilstein Memorial Medal in 2007, awarded by the German Chemical Society for scientists and scholars who have made an outstanding contribution to the history of chemistry, chemistry literature or chemical information.

In 2020 Dr Kennard was awarded the twelfth Ewald Prize by the International Union of Crystallography (IUCr) for ‘her invaluable pioneering contribution to the development of crystallographic databases, in particular the Cambridge Structural Database (CSD), which as she early foresaw, has led to the discovery of new knowledge which transcends the results of individual experiment.’

Recognition for Dr Kennard’s huge contribution to structural science continued right to the end of her life with the award by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences of the Gregori Aminoff Prize for 2023 for establishing a crystallographic database. Dr Kennard was due to receive the award at the Aminoff Prize Symposium at the end of March.

More about Dr Olga Kennard

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