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.



Women in Science: Hypatia of Alexandria, Ancient Astronomer

Image Credit: J.M. Gaspard, 1908.

Hypatia of Alexandria is a most fascinating historic figure. Born around the year 355 AD, she is the earliest female scientist of whom we have detailed knowledge. She was also thought to be the world’s leading astronomer and mathematician while she was alive. Until today this cannot be said about any other woman.

Unfortunately, none of Hypatia’s own writings have survived till today but some works of her colleagues and students did. They give us an impression about why she was such a famous scientist. The letters of one student, Synesius, talk about her lectures including the design of an astrolabe, a kind of astronomic calculator that was used until the 19th century. Hypatia also developed other scientific instruments and wrote mathematical textbooks.

Hypatia was born in Alexandria as the daughter of Theon of Alexandria who was a mathematician himself and a member of the Alexandrian Museum. The Museum of Alexandria was a research institute and school, similar to today’s universities. You could say that Theon was a professor there.

Theon taught Hypatia himself and when she reached adulthood she was better than her father in mathematics and philosophy. From around 380 Hypatia became a teacher in the Alexandrian Museum herself and in the year 400 AD she took over her father’s position as the Head of the Platonic School in Alexandria.

Many of Hypatia’s students would go on to become important figures in the Roman Empire. Her student Synesius, for example, would later become the bishop of Ptolemais. She was also very well respected by the government in Alexandria who would often look to her for advice. This gave Hypatia a lot of political power.

During Hypatias’s time Alexandria was an centre for learning and part of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, the city was also in turmoil due to conflicts between Christians, Jews and Pagans. Hypatia herself would have been considered a Pagan but her Neoplatonic philosophy was compatible with Christian and Jewish views. In fact, many of her students were Christian.

Christianity had only recently become the Roman Empire’s state religion. Alexandria’s archbishop, Cyril, steadily gained political power commanding a group of fanatical, violent monks that destroyed pagan temples and harassed the Jewish population. This lead to conflicts with the Roman governor Orestes who was a moderate Christian himself.

Being friends with Hypatia, Orestes turned to her for advice in this situation. However, Cyril accused Hypatia of witchcraft trying to turn Orestes against Christianity. In March 415 when Hypatia was out travelling in the city, a mob of Cyril’s militant monks brutally murdered her.

Today, Hypatia is mainly remembered for her violent death. In my opinion, we should remember her more for being the world’s first leading female scientist instead. This would do her much more justice.



Women in Science: Mary Anning, Pioneering Paleontologist

Image credit ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996)

Mary Anning came from quite disadvantaged beginnings, being born into a poor English family in 1799. Out of 10 children only she and her older brother survived into adulthood. Her father was a cabinet maker by profession and a keen fossil hunter on the side. He took Mary along for his collection trips and taught her how to clean and look after the fossils which he would often sell in his shop. When her father died of tuberculosis in 1810, Mary, still a child at the time, was encouraged by her mother to help the family financially by selling her fossils.

As a child Mary received very little formal education due to the lack of money in her family. She could read, but had to teach herself geology and anatomy.

Together with her brother, Mary discovered the first Ichthyosaur fossil (the remains of a marine reptile) when she was only 12 years old. After she had uncovered the 5.2 m long skeleton, scientists initially thought it was a crocodile. They debated the find for years.

You need to remember that at this time, the idea of extinction had just recently been introduced by Georges Cuvier. In addition, Charles Darwin did not publish his theory about evolution for another 48 years. People’s views on the creation of species was still largely based on the accounts of the Bible.

In 1823, still only aged 14, Mary was the first to discover a complete skeleton of a Plesiosaur (a ”sea dragon”), another marine reptile and even more controversial find. The fossil looked so strange and unlike any living animals, that it was rumoured to be a fake. Five years later followed the discovery of Pterodactylus, the remains of the first winged dinosaur found in Britain. In addition to uncovering many skeletons, Mary pioneered the study of coprolites, which is fossilized poo.

Mary was extremely proficient in uncovering, cleaning and identifying fossils. She continued to unearth countless remains. Many were sold to male scientists who profited from her work. Nevertheless, she was never recognized for it. Mary was not even mentioned in the papers about her groundbreaking Ichthyosaur find.

Mary died of breast cancer in 1847, aged only 47. Although she was never acknowledged formally for her discoveries, she left a great legacy of scientific discoveries. There are scientists who believe that her findings have in part contributed to the theory of evolution introduced by Charles Darwin over ten years after her death.





Women in Science: Rosalind Franklin and the DNA Structure

Image credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular BiologyFrom the personal collection of Jenifer Glynn. 1955. CC BY-SA 4.0.

One of the most important researchers involved in discovering the structure of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) would have celebrated their 99th birthday on July 25 this year. No – it is not James Watson or Francis Crick. It is Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant chemist, whose contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure has gone largely unrecognized.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin was born 1920 in London. Aged only 15 she decided she wanted to be a scientist. Her father discouraged her scientific interest knowing that at the time such a career choice would be very difficult for women. Nevertheless, in 1938 Franklin enrolled at the University of Cambridge to study Chemistry.

After graduating in 1941 Franklin was awarded a research scholarship to complete a PhD. However, this work was cut short by the start of World War II. The young researcher gave up her scholarship in order to work for the British Coal Utilisation Research Association, where she investigated ways to use coal and carbon in the war effort. Fortunately, she could adopt this research into her doctoral thesis and received a PhD from the University of Cambridge in 1945.

In 1947 Franklin went to Paris, where she worked with Jacque Méring, an expert in X-ray crystallography. X-ray crystallography or X-ray diffraction is a technique that uses X-rays to determine the arrangement of atoms in a material. It is still widely used today in scientific research.

Her time in France not only taught Franklin the technique of X-ray crystallography, but also how to tackle scientific challenges. She would later need both skills to discover the structure of DNA.

So, why did people bother to figure out the structure of DNA? DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is the genetic material inside your cells. DNA is like a blueprint or building plan for your body. It basically tells the cells of your body what to do. Almost all organisms store this building plan as DNA in their cells.

In 1951 Rosalind Franklin returned to Britain joining King’s College in London. There she started applying her knowledge about X-ray crystallography to study DNA. Franklin’s biggest contributions in the hunt for the DNA structure was finding the density of DNA and the insight that DNA forms a helix. A helix is a structure that looks like a cork screw or a wound staircase.

Franklin did not know that she was in a race with two other scientists from the University of Cambridge, James Watson and Francis Crick. Even worse was that Franklin’s colleague at King’s College Maurice Wilkins had developed a friendship with Watson and Crick. Without Franklin’s knowledge or permission Wilkins passed on her results to Watson and Crick.

Finally, Watson and Crick combined Franklin’s findings and her X-ray diffraction images of DNA with their own research. Again, this was all done with neither Franklin’s knowledge nor her permission. In April 1953, together with Wilkins, they announced that the structure of DNA was a double helix, or in other words a wound ladder. The race was over.

Soon after Franklin took a position at Birkbeck College, London, where she continued to work on coal and DNA. In addition, she started to determine the structure of viruses, which Franklin herself saw as her biggest success. Rosalind Franklin died of cancer in April 1958, aged only 37. She never knew of the contribution she had made to discover the structure of DNA.

James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1962.

When discussing why Franklin did not receive the Nobel prize, the first argument is always that she died it was awarded in 1962. It is true that the Nobel prize is only awarded to people who are alive. However, in my opinion it is very unlikely that Franklin would have received the prize even if she had been alive in 1962.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Watson, Crick and Wilkins never mentioned Franklin’s results in their publications despite having used them for their own work. In fact, Franklin never knew herself how much she had contributed to their model.

The second is that at the time women were just not well regarded in Science. When Franklin died in 1962 only three women had ever won the Nobel prize, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie and Gerty Cori. In addition, she had to battle the sexism in Science in her everyday life by protesting her lower pay and lack of promotion compared to her male colleagues.

Women in Science: Valentina Tereshkova, First Woman in Space

Image Credit: NASA

Most people know that 1961 Yuri Gargarin was the first man in space. Most people also know that 1969 Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon. However, few people know when the first woman went to space.

The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 – only two years after Gargarin’s tour. This is an incredibly short time considering how long it took the Americans to send their first woman to space. Sally Ride launched with the space shuttle Challenger in June 1983 – 22 years after the first American, Alan Shepard, went to space.

Having left education early, Valentina worked at a textile factory in a small village in Russia. Many might consider this early career unlikely for a future cosmonaut. However, Valentina was a passionate parachutist. This hobby later qualified her to join the cosmonaut training program. Recruitng parachutists to the space program was not uncommon at the time because early cosmonauts and astronauts had to parachute out of their space craft when landing back on Earth.

After winning the race of putting the first man into space, Soviet leadership was determined to also win the race of launching the first woman. Therefore, they sent out incognito spotters to parachuting clubs to find women suited for the cosmonaut training program.

After further tests, Valentina was selected for training along with four other women. Three of them had university degrees in technology and engineering. So, why was Valentina chosen before them? Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev got the final pick and he chose Valentina mainly because she was the best fit for party propaganda. Her father had died as a soldier during World War II and she was clearly of the working class.

Valentina launched into space aboard Vostok 6 on 16 June 1963 and orbited the Earth 48 times. After three days she landed in the Altay region in Kazakhstan.

After her return, Valentina was greatly celebrated by the Soviet leadership and became an important propaganda figure. However, she never flew in space again.

Author’s Comment

Despite being chosen as the first woman in space partly for propaganda reasons, I believe, we can learn something important from Valentina Tereshkova’s career.

Valentina left school early and worked in a textile factory, but managed to join the astronaut program. She pulled off a major career change. This means it is never too late to learn something new, change your career or apply for that training program or course you always wanted to do.

Teenagers today are often told that they need to figure out exactly what they want to do with their lives by the ages of 15 or 16. After that that’s it. You are stuck with your choice. Valentina’s story shows that this is not true. You can start out as a textile worker and end up going to space.