Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) passed away today after fighting illness for several years. She died in London, after having suffered a stroke, at 87 years old. Last December, she had undergone an operation to remove a growth from her bladder.
Known as the Iron Lady for her toughness, Thatcher had served as the United Kingdom’s only female prime minister, leading her country from 1979 to 1990 as head of the Conservative Party.
Thatcher served longer than any other British prime minister in the 20th Century. She is remembered for her generally conservative views, including weakening trade unions, deregulating industries, divesting state-controlled parts of the economy, and taking a tough stance against Communism.
The latter efforts meant she was also often closely allied with Ronald Reagan’s U.S. administration.
On the occasion of Thatcher’s death, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said: “The Queen was sad to hear the news of the death of Baroness Thatcher. Her Majesty will be sending a private message of sympathy to the family.”
David Cameron, the U.K.’s current prime minister, said: “It was with great sadness that l learned of Lady Thatcher’s death. We’ve lost a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.”
Margaret Thatcher led a long and intriguing political life, which got us thinking about some of the surprising things we learned about her along the way. Here is a brief list:
1. Soviet Journalists Gave Her the Name “Iron Lady”
Long known as the Iron Lady (including in her 2011 biopic), Thatcher was given that memorable title by Soviet journalists, who had made “a grudging testament to her ferocious will and determination,” in the words of NPR.
2. Thatcher Helped Develop Soft Serve Ice Cream
Before she entered the tough world of politics, Thatcher was a research chemist. In her 20s she worked for J. Lyons and Co. as a food scientist, where she developed additives for ice cream. Her team “discovered a method of doubling the amount of air” in ice cream, which eventually found its way into soft serve products. (Updated based on a reader comment below.)
Earning her science chops, Thatcher had majored in chemistry at Oxford for a BSc.
3. Thatcher Refused 20 Female Karate-Chopping Bodyguards
In 1979, in her first year of office as Britain’s prime minister, Thatcher traveled to Japan for an economic summit. Not having hosted many female heads of state, the Japanese arranged to have 20 female karate experts escort her.
But Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt told the Japanese, “Mrs Thatcher will attend the summit as Prime Minister and not as a woman per se. The Prime Minister would like to be treated in exactly the same manner as the other visiting Heads of Delegation. If other delegation leaders, for example, are each being assigned 20 karate gentlemen, the Prime Minister would have no objection to this; but she does not wish to be singled out.”
4. Thatcher Did Her Own Cooking
Although Thatcher was prime minister for 11 years, she didn’t have a chef in her employ. Every night, she reportedly cooked dinner for her husband, Denis Thatcher, and she frequently cooked for cabinet members as well.
5. Thatcher Said She Wouldn’t Have Gone Into Politics in a Do-Over
In 1995, Thatcher told Conservative MP Lord Spicer, “If I had my time again, I wouldn’t go into politics because of what it does to your family.”
Thatcher’s husband Denis died in 2003. Their son had gained a reputation for allegedly being a playboy.
Thatcher wasn’t the first politician to remark on the challenges of being under constant scrutiny, and balancing work and home life.
What were you surprised to learn about Margaret Thatcher?
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested Thatcher was born on a Friday the 13th.)
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.