Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is best known for her work in developing crystallography of biochemical compounds. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for determining the complicated structure of vitamin B12. 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 three-dimensional structures of biochemical compounds.
Early Life and Education
Dorothy Crowfoot was born to John Winter Crowfoot and Grace Mary Hood Crowfoot in Cairo, Egypt on May 12, 1910.
Her father, John worked for the Egyptian Education Service as a school inspector and later 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. Her mother, 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 four daughters as they were growing up. The children stayed with their grandparents while their parents worked abroad.
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 Sir John Leman School in north Suffolk, England 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 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. Dorothy 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.
University, Marriage, Illness
Aged 18, Dorothy Hodgkin started her chemistry degree at Somerville College, Oxford University, before moving to the University of Cambridge to earn her Doctorate. Supervised by John Desmond Bernal, she discovered how x-ray crystallography can be used to determine the structure of vitamin D and several sex hormones. In 1934 she helped take the first x-ray photographs of the stomach enzyme pepsin. She was awarded her doctorate in 1937 with a thesis on the chemistry and crystallography of sterols.
Dorothy married Thomas Hodgkin, a historian’s son, the same year. 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 eventually spent a lot of time in a wheelchair, this did not stop her from pursuing her passion and she continued her research work.
Early Career and Achievements
Hodgkin 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.
The Second World War created a huge demand for penicillin and Hodgkin started studying penicillin hydrochloride. The structure was determined in 1945 and the three-dimensional biomolecular structure was published together with Charles Bunn in 1949.
Hodgkin’s work on discovering the molecular structure of vitamin B12 began in 1948. Due to its large molecular weight it took six years of research to complete the task in 1954. This research led her to being awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.
In addition to the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 Hodgkin became only 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, Hodgkin 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 was among those who determined the structure of insulin; which was published in 1969. Work on this project took over 30 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 took Hodgkin’s interest because of the complexity of its structure-it contains 51 amino acids-and the effect that it has on the body.
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 her face appeared 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 University and King’s College in London, and Sir John Leman High School’s science block.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin died on July 29, 1994, aged 84.