Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is best known for her work in developing protein crystallography. A woman of great intellect and an immense passion for science, she helped advance the x-ray crystallography technique, which was the key to studying and understanding the 3-dimensional structures of biomolecules.


Life and Education

Dorothy Crowfoot was born to John Winter Crowfoot and Grace Mary Hood Crowfoot in Cairo, Egypt on May 12, 1910. John worked for the Egyptian Education Service as a school inspector and later on moved to Sudan where he became Director of Education and Director of Antiquities. He retired from his career in Sudan in 1926 and focused on archaeology. He became the Director of Jerusalem’s British School of Archaeology and went on different excavations in Samaria, Bosra, and Mount Ophel. Grace Mary was a botanist and took time to illustrate the different flora found in Sudan. She was also very much involved in John’s work. Both parents believed in selflessness and service — traits that they instilled in their daughters as they were growing up.

Dorothy’s interest in chemistry started when she was just 10 years old. On a visit to Sudan, Dr. A.F. Joseph, her parents’ good friend, let her study and analyze some chemicals. When she was attending the Sir John Leman School, she was allowed to join the boys as they studied chemistry. By the end of her early schooling, she had already decided that chemistry was something she wanted to pursue.

When Dorothy was given the chance to visit her father in Sudan in 1923, she immediately fell in love with the place. She spent some time with her parents and helped out in the excavation in Jerash. She and her sister would also study the pebbles they found in a nearby stream using a portable mineral analysis kit, further pushing her fascination and interest in crystals and minerals. This experience almost made her give up chemistry and replace it with archaeology instead. Then she was given a copy of “Concerning the Nature of Things” by Sir William Henry Bragg when she was 15, and she was intrigued at the thought of being able to study the properties of atoms and molecules using x-rays.

Aged 18, she started her chemistry degree at Somerville College, Oxford University, before moving to the University of Cambridge to earn her PhD. Supervised by John Desmond Bernal, she discovered how x-ray crystallography can be used to determine the structure of proteins. She assisted Bernal as he applied the technique to pepsin, the first time this method was used in analyzing a biological substance.

Dorothy married Thomas Hodgkin, a historian’s son, in 1937. Their marriage brought them three children. Their eldest son Luke became a mathematician. Their daughter Elizabeth followed her father’s career, becoming a historian, while the younger son Toby studied botany and agriculture.

Dorothy Hodgkin was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after experiencing pain in her hands for a period of time. Although she spent a lot of time in a wheelchair, this did not stop her from pursuing her passion and she continued her research work.

Her Greatest Contributions

Dorothy Hodgkin discovered three-dimensional biomolecular structures and published the structure of the steroid cholesteryl iodide in 1945. She also worked on the structure of penicillin with her colleagues and published it in 1949. Her work on vitamin B12 was published in 1954, which led to her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.

She was among those who worked on the structure of insulin; which was published in 1969. Work on this specific project took 35 years, as they started studying the crystalline insulin sample provided by Robert Robinson in 1934 when x-ray crystallography was not yet fully developed. This specific hormone grabbed Dorothy’s interest because of the complexity of its structure and the effect that it has on the body.

Other Achievements

Dorothy was given a research fellowship from Somerville College, Oxford in 1933. She was also Somerville’s first fellow and tutor in chemistry, a position she held from 1936 to 1977. During this period, she tutored the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was then Margaret Roberts. Thatcher had a portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin installed in 10 Downing Street in the 1980s.

When the structure of the DNA was released, Dorothy was among the first ones to see it. She travelled from Oxford to Cambridge with a few other people to see the structure as constructed by James Watson and Francis Crick.

She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 and became the second woman to receive the Order of Merit, the first of which was given to Florence Nightingale. She also became the first woman to receive the Copley medal and was a winner of the Lenin Peace Prize. A Fellow of the Royal Society, she also became Bristol University’s Chancellor from 1970 to 1988. She was given an Honorary Degree of Science from University of Bath in 1978.

Hodgkin showed great concern about social inequalities and aimed to resolve conflicts. She was president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs from 1976 to 1988.

Because of her outstanding work, the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship was established by the Royal Society for those who are in the early stages of their career in research. She was also chosen as one of the five “Women of Achievement” whose faces appeared in a series of British stamps that were issued in August 1996. The Royal Society also celebrated their 350th anniversary in 2010 by releasing 10 stamps that showcased their most acclaimed members. Among the ten was Dorothy Hodgkin, making it the second time for her face to appear on a stamp.

Her name is also honored through several council offices and buildings in educational institutions. Among these are the council offices in the Borough of Hackney in London, buildings in Bristol University, Keele Univerity and King’s College in London, and Sir John Leman High School’s science block.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin died on July 29, 1994.