Women in Science: Dorothy Hodgkin

Yesterday, 12 May, Dorothy Hodgkin would have celebrated her 110th birthday. She was a remarkable scientist who discovered the structures of important biological substances, like insulin. In 1964 she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for uncovering the structures of penicillin and vitamin B12.

Dorothy was born in Cairo where her father, John Crowfoot, worked for the Egyptian Education Service. During World War I, Dorothy was sent to live with her grandparents in England. The girl then spent most of her childhood apart from her parents. Nevertheless, they were very involved in Dorothy’s education and her mother, Grace Crowfoot, encouraged her interest for science.

Dorothy first became fascinated with crystals and chemistry at the age of 10. She and another girl, Norah Pusey, had to fight to be allowed to study chemistry together with the boys at her small, state-funded secondary school. After successfully finishing school, Dorothy started a degree in Chemistry at the University of Oxford in 1928.

Most of us may only have heard about X-rays in relation to broken bones or luggage security checks at airports. However, they are also used in a technique called X-ray crystallography to investigate the atomic structure of materials. In the 1930s X-ray crystallography had just recently been invented and was a very new method. During her final-year project in 1932, Dorothy became one of the first scientists to study organic compounds with this technique in Herbert Powell‘s brand new X-ray laboratory.

After graduating Dorothy moved to the University of Cambridge to carry out research for a PhD with John Desmond Bernal. She continued to study biological molecules using X-ray crystallography. For example, she investigated the structure of pepsin, an enzyme in our digestive system that breaks down proteins into their building blocks called amino acids.

In 1934, Dorothy returned to the University of Oxford where she established her on X-ray laboratory. She almost immediately started to work on the structure of insulin, the hormone that controls the sugar concentration in our blood. This project would take 35 years of work until its completion. In 1969 the structure of insulin was finally published leading to improved treatments for type I diabetes.

During World War II, Dorothy uncovered the structure of penicillin, an antibiotic drug that kills bacteria. Her publication of vitamin B12’s structure followed in 1954. These two discoveries would lead to the award of the Novel Prize in Chemistry 1964.

Apart from her amazing scientific discoveries, things were also happening in Dorothy’s private life. In 1937 Dorothy married the historian Thomas Hodgkin  with whom she had three children born between 1938 and 1946. Dorothy died July 29, 1994.




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