Margaret Thatcher May Have Helped Invent Soft-Serve Ice Cream

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A young Margaret Thatcher, in the lab. (BBC via YouTube)

Margaret Thatcher died this morning at the age of 87. While some of her achievements over her long career have been and remain controversial, there is one accomplishment that has proven purely and Platonically beneficial -- to Britons, to Americans, to lovers of dairy the world over. Margaret Thatcher, the legend goes, helped invent soft-serve ice cream.

Yes. The Milk Snatcher, who was also an ice cream inventor. The Iron Lady of Soft Serve. Thatcher, you see, before she was a politician, was a research chemist. The future prime minister, then Margaret Roberts, received a degree in chemistry from Oxford in 1947. And she put it to use first in work at a glue factory, and then with a research job at food manufacturer J. Lyons and Company, a "foodstuff conglomerate" in Hammersmith. Thatcher's task in that role? To help figure out a way to whip extra air into ice cream using emulsifiers -- so that the ice cream could be manufactured with fewer ingredients, thereby reducing production costs. (And so that, additionally, the dairy-y result could flow from a machine rather than being scooped by hand.) While Thatcher's exact contribution to the effort remains, in a way that would foreshadow her future political career, a matter of controversy, her team ultimately succeeded. And the work resulted, ultimately, in the swirly stuff we know today as soft serve. (Or, if you're in Britain, "soft scoop.") J. Lyons's airy dairy was served from ice cream trucks -- under the brand Mr. Whippy -- in Great Britain. And then, as soft serve is wont to do, it quickly spread.

Despite her work in the field, though, Thatcher didn't love chemistry. ("I just didn't like staying in the laboratory that long," she once explained. "I wanted to have more direct work to do with people.") But her work in food engineering led to her introduction to Denis Thatcher, then the managing director of his family's chemical and paint company. Denis encouraged Margaret to switch careers -- from chemistry to the field that would prove her real, if not her first, love: the law.

Hat tip Chris Jones and Alice Bell.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.


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