Margaret Thatcher may have been a controversial figure in British history — or, really, world history — but there's little doubt that her passing at age 87 feels like the end of an era.
A British Conservative Party leader, she was a no-nonsense politician who may be forever remembered for her uncompromising style as well as her polarizing effect on the public. People either loved her or hated her, and they had plenty of time to do so. She was Britain's longest-serving prime minister, who held office from 1979 to 1990, as well as its only female P.M. to date.
These are known facts about the "Iron Lady." But what might surprise you is that this wasn't some old bitty with a penchant for rankling people. Whether you agree with her politics or not, it's pretty clear that she was a trailblazer as well as a bit of a geek. Here are a few details that might surprise you:
…was a grocer's daughter who was first a scientist before going into politics. She majored in chemistry at Oxford for a BSc, for which she completed a dissertation on X-ray crystallography (the science of mapping a crystal's chemical bonds and atoms) of the antibiotic gramicidin. She went on to work as a research chemist before becoming a barrister and then Britain's prime minister.
…may have helped invent soft-serve ice cream. When she was a young 20-something food scientist at J. Lyons and Co., she was on the team that figured out how to whip more air into the dessert, which paved the way for soft-serve.
…turned down a security team of 20 female karate experts that Japanese officials assembled for her during the 1979 Tokyo Economic Summit. She wanted the same bodyguards as every other heads of state.
… helped legitimize environmental issues. In a speech delivered to the United Nations, she called for a "vast international, co-operative effort" to address greenhouse gas emissions and fund research into green energy. The year was 1989, long before the topics became trendy.
…was an early champion of the Internet. Sure, the Web is ubiquitous now, but a couple of decades ago, it was still an unknown variable, as were its effects on society. Back then, when many, many experts and pundits were all over the media, chewing over its potential ills, Thatcher spoke out in favor. Of course, the conservative supported censoring content like pornography and sadism, but she also called the technology "a miracle from God."
For more, including a blow-by-blow of how the country changed under her leadership, The Guardian has a rather eye-opening set of charts that depict Thatcher's influence on British society. For a more cinematic view, see Meryl Streep's "The Iron Lady" (2011).