Pioneer in X-ray crystallography, Dorothy Hodgkin is the only British woman to have received the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Dorothy Hodgkin was born in 1910 in Cairo, Egypt, where her father was in the Egyptian Education Service. During the First World War, Dorothy and her sisters were sent to stay with their grandparents near Worthing, UK, while her parents remained mainly in the Sudan. Dorothy visited them in 1922, and on this trip she met Dr A. F. Joseph, a government chemist and friend of Dorothy’s father, who encouraged her interest in chemistry.
Dorothy was educated in England and took private tuition in order to take the University of Oxford entrance examination. She was accepted to study chemistry at Somerville College, where, for her final-year project, she became the first student of Herbert Powell, in the newly-acquired X-ray laboratory. After graduating with first class honours, Dorothy went to study for a PhD at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of John Desmond Bernal. It was while working on her PhD that she, alongside Bernal, managed to demonstrate for the first time that a protein had a regular molecular structure. Upon nearing the completion of her PhD, Somerville College offered Dorothy a fellowship; she returned to Oxford in 1934 where she would remain until her retirement in 1977.
Work on X-rays
“I was captured for life by chemistry and by crystals.”
Dorothy’s career was littered with high-profile discoveries, the first of which was the discovery of the atomic structure of penicillin in 1945. However, the work was not published until 1949, firstly for security reasons and then commercial ones. In 1954, she published the structure of vitamin B12. This work was done in collaboration with Ken Trueblood, at the University of California, Los Angeles, who allowed Dorothy access to more sophisticated computing power than was available to her in Oxford. It was for this work that, in 1964, Dorothy was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The citation on her award read:
“…for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”
The news reached Dorothy and her husband, Thomas, while they were in Africa, where Thomas was working as the director of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. She remains the only British female scientist to have received the Nobel Prize. Following her award-winning work on vitamin B12, Hodgkin went on to decipher the structure of insulin in 1969, after 35 years of work. The project, which she had started in 1934, had stalled, as the available X-ray crystallography techniques were unable to cope with such a complex molecule. After decades of technique refinement, Dorothy returned to the insulin project and finally established the elusive structure. This allowed greater understanding of the molecule and improved treatment for diabetics.
Just as Dorothy was building up her academic career, she began to suffer from ill health and, at 24, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. This became progressively worse and led to deformities in both her hands and feet, until eventually she had to spend a large amount of time in a wheelchair. Nonetheless, Dorothy remained active throughout her life and even attended the 1993 International Union of Crystallography Congress in Beijing, aged 83.
“Byam [Dorothy’s doctor] thinks I should take a month off work, but, of course I’m not going to do that.”
Social and political activism
Whilst being a leader in her field of study, Dorothy was also interested in several humanitarian causes. She was a firm socialist and supported both socialist and communist governments, causing her to be banned from the US for several years. As her fame grew, Dorothy was increasingly asked for help in getting people, mainly scientists, released from imprisonment in the USSR. She felt that signing petitions or publicly condemning Soviet actions would be ineffective and damaging to working relationships, so instead she wrote personal letters to her contacts in the Soviet Union. Dorothy’s political views and activism led to her appointment as president of Pugwash, an international organisation which works to reduce the dangers raised by scientific research. She was president for 13 years, retiring from the role in 1988.
In the 1940s, one of Dorothy’s students was Margaret Thatcher, who was studying the structure of gramicidin B as part of her undergraduate research project. Thatcher reportedly installed a portrait of Dorothy in Downing Street during her time as prime minister and sought advice from her on both scientific issues and the conditions in eastern Europe, despite their opposing political viewpoints.
During her accomplished career, Dorothy was recognised with many distinctions. She was awarded a fellowship of the Royal Society in 1946, the Royal Society Medal in 1956 and became the second woman to receive the Order of Merit in 1965 (preceded only by Florence Nightingale). Her legacy has been celebrated in the Royal Society’s “Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships” for early career stage researchers, and in two sets of commemorative stamps.
Words by Debbie Houghton
Thumbnail image © Godfrey Argent Studio; main image © Science Photo Library
Published May 2014