Women and Science: Dorothy Hodgkin (Nobel Prize)

Dorothy Hodgkin Nobel.jpg

Dorothy Mary Hodgkin, known professionally as Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was a British biochemist, credited with the development of protein crystallography. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.

She advanced the technique of X-ray crystallography, a method used to determine the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules. Among her most influential discoveries are the confirmation of the structure of penicillin that Ernst Boris Chain and Edward Abraham had previously surmised, and then the structure of vitamin B12, for which she became the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In 1969, after 35 years of work and five years after winning the Nobel Prize, Hodgkin was able to decipher the structure of insulin. X-ray crystallography became a widely used tool and was critical in later determining the structures of many biological molecules where knowledge of structure is critical to an understanding of function. She is regarded as one of the pioneer scientists in the field of X-ray crystallography studies of biomolecules.

Molecular Structure of Vitamin B12 discovered by Dorothy Hodgkin

In 1960, she was appointed the Royal Society’s Wolfson Research Professor, a position she held until 1970.

Insulin was one of her most extraordinary research projects. It began in 1934 when she was offered a small sample of crystalline insulin by Robert Robinson. The hormone captured her imagination because of the intricate and wide-ranging effect it has in the body. However, at this stage X-ray crystallography had not been developed far enough to cope with the complexity of the insulin molecule. She and others spent many years improving the technique. Larger and more complex molecules were being tackled until in 1969 – 35 years later – the structure of insulin was finally resolved.[18] But her quest was not finished then. She cooperated with other laboratories active in insulin research, gave advice, and travelled the world giving talks about insulin and its importance for diabetes.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c. 1945

Hodgkin’s scientific mentor Professor John Desmond Bernal greatly influenced her life both scientifically and politically. He was a distinguished scientist of great repute in the scientific world, a member of the Communist Party.

In 1937, Dorothy married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, who became a well-known Oxford lecturer, the author of several major works on African history and politics and a member of the Communist Party.

Because of her political activity and her husband’s association with the Communist Party, she was banned from entering the US in 1953 and subsequently not allowed to visit the country except by CIA waiver.

Novelist and chemist C P Snow told communist historian Eric Hobsbawm that if they took a poll of a couple of hundred of the brightest young British scientists in the mid 1930s, they would have found around 15 Communist Party members, a good 50 more on the left and a hundred more proud of their leftist views.

In 1939 Bernal wrote his book The Social Function of Science. The work focuses on the way resources were allocated to various parts of science and technology.

At the heart of Bernal’s book —indeed his whole political thinking, and Hodgkin’s too — is a call to organise this great human power of science to serve the many, not the few.

In 1937, Dorothy married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin although her close relationship with Bernal would continue on and off for many years.

She and her old friend and mentor J D Bernal had key roles in the World Peace Council.

The pair worked together when the British Peace Committee attempted to host a world peace congress in Sheffield. British government obstructions caused a number of delegates to be stranded in London.

At the age of 24, Hodgkin began experiencing pain in her hands. A visit to a doctor led to a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis which would become progressively worse and crippling over time with deformities in both her hands and feet. Eventually, Hodgkin spent a great deal of time in a wheelchair but remained scientifically active despite her disability.

On July 29, 1994, Hodgkin died after a stroke at her home in Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire.


Order of Merit medal of Dorothy Hodgkin, displayed in the Royal Society, London.

Apart from the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964, she was the second woman to receive the Order of Merit in 1965 (preceded only by Florence Nightingale), the first and so far (2014) only woman to receive the Copley Medal, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a winner of the Lenin Peace Prize, and was Chancellor of Bristol University from 1970 to 1988. She was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Science) from the University of Bath in 1978. In 1958, she was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1983, Hodgkin received the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.[31]
Cultural references

The Royal Society has established the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship for early career stage researchers.

Hodgkin was one of five ‘Women of Achievement’ selected for a set of British stamps issued in August 1996.

Council offices in the London Borough of Hackney and buildings at King’s College London, University of York, Bristol University and Keele University are named after her, as is the science block at Sir John Leman High School, her former school.

On 12 May 2014, the 104th anniversary of Hodgkin’s birthday was commemorated by a Google Doodle.

Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture

An annual memorial lecture is held every March in honour of Hodgkin’s work.

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