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 as previously surmised by Edward Abraham and Ernst Boris Chain, and 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, 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.
Education and research
Dorothy developed a passion for chemistry from a young age, and her mother fostered her interest in all the sciences (Molly was a highly proficient botanist). She was further encouraged by the chemist A.K. Joseph, a family friend who also worked in Sudan.
Her State school education did not include Latin, then required for entrance to Oxbridge, and the Leman School headmaster gave her personal tuition to overcome this barrier, enabling Dorothy to pass the University of Oxford entrance examination. At the age of 18 she started studying Chemistry at the University of Oxford (Somerville College). In 1932 Dorothy was awarded a first-class honours degree at the University, the third woman to achieve this distinction.
It was when studying for a doctorate at Newnham College, Cambridge, supervised by J.D. Bernal, that Dorothy became aware of the potential of X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of proteins. She was working with Bernal on the technique’s first application to the analysis of a biological substance, pepsin. The pepsin experiment is largely credited to Dorothy herself, but she always made it clear that it was Bernal who initially took the photographs and gave her additional key insights.
In 1933 Dorothy was awarded a research fellowship by Somerville College, and in 1934, she moved back to Oxford. The college appointed her its first fellow and tutor in chemistry in 1936, a post which she held until 1977. In the 1940s, one of her students was Margaret Roberts, the future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who installed a portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin in Downing Street in the 1980s, though Hodgkin was a Labour supporter.
Together with Sydney Brenner, Jack Dunitz, Leslie Orgel, and Beryl M. Oughton, Dorothy was one of the first people in April 1953 to travel from Oxford to Cambridge to see the model of the double helix structure of DNA, constructed by Francis Crick and James Watson, based on data and technique acquired by Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. According to the late Dr. Beryl Oughton (married name, Rimmer), they all travelled together in two cars after Dorothy announced that they were off to Cambridge to see the model of the structure of DNA.
In 1960, Dorothy was appointed the Royal Society‘s Wolfson Research Professor, a position she held until 1970. This provided her salary, research expenses and research assistance to continue her work at the University of Oxford. She was a fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford from 1977 to 1983.
Dorothy was particularly noted for discovering three-dimensional biomolecular structures. In 1945, working with C. H. (Harry) Carlisle, she published the first such structure of a steroid, cholesteryl iodide (having worked with cholesteryls since the days of her doctoral studies). In 1945, she and her colleagues solved the structure of penicillin, demonstrating (contrary to scientific opinion at the time) that it contains a -lactam ring. However, the work was not published until 1949.
In 1948, Dorothy first encountered vitamin B12, and created new crystals. Vitamin B12 had first been discovered by Merck earlier that year. It had a structure at the time that was almost completely unknown, and when Dorothy discovered it contained cobalt, she realized the structure actualization could be determined by x-ray crystallography analysis. The large size of the molecule, and the fact that the atoms were largely unaccounted foraside from cobaltposed a challenge in structure analysis that had not been previously explored. From these crystals, she deduced the presence of a ring structure because the crystals were pleochroic, a finding which she later confirmed using X-ray crystallography. The B12 study published by Hodgkin was described by Lawrence Bragg as being as significant “as breaking the sound barrier”. Scientists from Merck had previously crystallised B12, but had published only refractive indices of the substance. The final structure of B12, for which Dorothy was later awarded the Nobel Prize, was published in 1955.
Insulin was one of Dorothy’s 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 tackled until in 196935 years laterthe structure of insulin was finally resolved. 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.
Public and personal life
Dorothy’s scientific mentor Professor John Desmond Bernal greatly influenced her life, both scientifically and politically. A distinguished scientist, he was an open and vocal member of the Communist Party, a key scientific adviser to the UK government during the Second World War, and a faithful supporter of the Soviet regime until its invasion of Hungary in 1956. Dorothy always referred to him as “Sage”; they were lovers before she met and married Thomas Hodgkin. The married life of Dorothy and Bernal himself were unconventional, by the standards of those days or of the present.
At the age of 24, Dorothy 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. In her last years, Dorothy spent a great deal of time in a wheelchair but remained scientifically active despite her disability.
In 1937, Dorothy married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin. He had not long returned from Palestine where he had resigned from the Colonial Office and was working in adult education. He was an intermittent member of the Communist Party and later wrote several major works on African politics and history, becoming a well-known lecturer at Balliol College in Oxford. The couple had three children: Luke (b. 1938), Elizabeth (b. 1941) and Toby (b. 1946).
“Today I lost my maiden name”
Dorothy published as “Dorothy Crowfoot” until 1949, when she was persuaded by Hans Clarkes secretary to use her married name on a chapter she contributed to The Chemistry of Penicillin. By then she had been married for 12 years, given birth to three children and become a Fellow of the Royal Society. Her elder son Luke recalls his mother returning home and announcing in mock tragic tones, “Today I lost my maiden name”.
Thereafter she would publish as “Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin”, and this was the name used by the Nobel Foundation in its award to her and the biography it included among other Nobel Prize recipients; it is also what the Chemical Heritage Foundation calls her. For simplicity’s sake, Dorothy is referred to as “Dorothy Hodgkin” by the Royal Society, when referring to its sponsorship of the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship, and by Somerville College, after it inaugurated the annual lectures in her honour.
The National Archives of the United Kingdom refer to her as “Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin”; on a variety of plaques commemorating places where she worked or lived, e.g. 94 Woodstock Road, Oxford, she is “Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin”.
Contacts with scientists abroad
Between the 1950s and the 1970s Dorothy established and maintained lasting contacts with scientists in her field abroadat the Institute of Crystallography in Moscow; in India; and with the Chinese group working in Beijing and Shanghai on the structure of insulin.
Her first visit to China was in 1959. Over the next quarter century she travelled there seven more times, the last visit a year before her death. Particularly memorable was the visit in 1971 after the Chinese group themselves independently solved the structure of insulin, later than Dorothy’s team but to a higher resolution. During the subsequent three years, 1972-1975, when she was President of the International Union of Crystallography she was unable to persuade the Chinese authorities, however, to permit the country’s scientists to become members of the Union and attend its meetings.
Her relations with a supposed scientist in another “People’s Democracy” had less happy results. At the age of 73, Dorothy wrote a foreword to the English edition of Stereospecific Polymerization of Isoprene, published by Robert Maxwell as the work of Elena Ceausescu, wife of Romania’s communist dictator. Dorothy wrote of the author’s “outstanding achievements” and “impressive” career. Following the overthrow of the Ceausescu during Romanian Revolution of 1989, it was revealed that Elena Ceausescu had neither finished secondary school nor attended university. Her scientific credentials were a hoax, and the publication in question was written for her by a team of scientists to obtain a fraudulent doctorate.
Political views and activities
Because of Dorothy’s political activities, and her husband Thomas’s association with the Communist Party, she was banned from entering the USA in 1953 and subsequently not allowed to visit the country except by CIA waiver.
In 1961 Thomas became an advisor to Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, a country he visited for extended periods before Nkrumah’s ouster in 1966. Dorothy was there with him when news came of her Nobel Prize award.
Dorothy was never a communist, but she inherited from her mother Molly a concern about social inequalities and a determination to do what she could to prevent armed conflict and, in particular, the threat of nuclear war. She became president of the Pugwash Conference in 1976 and served longer than any who preceded or succeeded her in this post. She stepped down in 1988, the year after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty imposed “a global ban on short- and long-range nuclear weapons systems, as well as an intrusive verification regime”. She accepted the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet government in 1987 in recognition of her work for peace and disarmament.
Dorothy decided not to attend the 1987 Congress of the International Union of Crystallography in Australia on grounds of distance. In 1993, despite increasing frailty, she astounded close friends and family by her determination to go to Beijing for the next Congress, where she was welcomed by all. The following July Dorothy died after a stroke at her husband’s home in the village of Ilmington, near Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire.
Honours, awards and legacy”]
Dorothy won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and as of 2016 remains the only British woman scientist to have been awarded a Nobel Prize in any of the three sciences it recognises. In 1965 she was the second woman in 60 years, after Florence Nightingale, to be appointed to the Order of Merit by a king or queen. She was the first and, as of 2016, remains the only woman to receive the prestigious Copley Medal.
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1947 and an EMBO Member in 1970., Dorothy was Chancellor of the University of Bristol from 1970 to 1988. In 1958, she was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1966, she was awarded the Iota Sigma Pi National Honorary Member for her significant contribution.
She became a foreign member of the USSR Academy of Sciences in the 1970s. In 1982 Dorothy received the Lomonosov Medal of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and in 1987 she accepted the Lenin Peace Prize from the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. The communist government of Bulgaria awarded her its Dimitrov Prize.
An asteroid (5422) discovered on 23 December 1982 by L.G. Karachkina (at the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, M.P.C. 22509, in the USSR) was named “Hodgkin” in her honour.
In 1983, Dorothy received the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art.
A Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship was established by The Royal Society to enable researchers in the early stages of their career to take time off to raise a family or care for a family member without losing the ability to continue their research later.
British postage stamps have twice commemorated Dorothy.
- She was one of five ‘Women of Achievement’ selected for a set issued in August 1996. The others were Marea Hartman (sports administrator), Margot Fonteyn (ballerina/choreographer), Elisabeth Frink (sculptor) & Daphne du Maurier (writer). All except Dorothy were Dames Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBEs).
- In 2010, during the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society, Dorothy was the only woman in a set of stamps celebrating ten of the Society’s most illustrious members, taking her place alongside Isaac Newton, Edward Jenner, Joseph Lister, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Babbage, Robert Boyle, Ernest Rutherford, Nicholas Shackleton and Alfred Russel Wallace.
Council offices in the London Borough of Hackney and buildings at 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.
In 2012, Dorothy featured in the BBC Radio 4 series The New Elizabethans to mark the diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. A panel of seven academics, journalists and historians named her among the group of people in the UK “whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and given the age its character”.
In 2015 Dorothy’s 1949 paper “The X-ray Crystallographic Investigation of the Structure of Penicillin” (published with colleagues C. W. Bunn, B. W. Rogers-Low, and A. Turner Jones) was honoured by a Citation for Chemical Breakthrough Award from the Division of History of Chemistry of the American Chemical Society presented to the University of Oxford (England). This research is notable for its groundbreaking use of X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of complex natural products, in this instance, of penicillin. It may be noted that Dorothy used her maiden name “D. Crowfoot” in this paper, published 12 years after her marriage to Thomas Hodgkin.
Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture
Since 1999, the Oxford International Women’s Festival has presented an annual memorial lecture, usually in March, in honour of Dorothy’s work. The Lecture is a collaboration between Oxford AWiSE (Association for Women in Science & Engineering), Somerville College and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
- Professor Louise Johnson, “Dorothy Hodgkin and penicillin”, 4 March 1999.
- Professor Judith Howard, “The Interface of Chemistry and Biology Increasingly in Focus”, *13 March 2000.
- Professor Jenny Glusker, “Vitamin B12 and Dorothy: Their impact on structural science”, 15 May 2001.
- Professor Pauline Harrison CBE, “From Crystallography to Metals, Metabolism and Medicine”, 5 March 2002.
- Dr Claire Naylor, “Pathogenic Proteins: how bacterial agents cause disease”, 4 March 2003.
- Dr Margaret Adams, “A Piece in the Jigsaw: G6PD The protein behind an hereditary disease”, 9 March 2004.
- Dr. Margaret Rayman, “Selenium in cancer prevention”, 10 March 2005.
- Dr Elena Conti, “Making sense of nonsense: structural studies of RNA degradation and disease”, 9 March 2006.
- Professor Jenny Martin, “The name’s Bond Disulphide Bond”, 6 March 2007.
- Professor E. Yvonne Jones, “Postcards from the surface: The Structural Biology of Cell-Cell Communication”, 4 March 2008.
- Professor Pamela J. Bjorkman, “Your mother’s antibodies: How you get them and how we might improve them to combat HIV”, 11 March 2009.
- Professor Elspeth Garman, “Crystallography 100 years A.D (After Dorothy)” 9 March 2010.
- Professor Eleanor Dodson, “Mathematics in the service of Crystallography” 10 March 2011.
- Professor Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, “How antibiotics illuminate ribosome function and vice versa” March 2012.
- Professor Susan Lea, “Bacterial secretion systems using structure to build towards new therapeutic opportunities”, 5 March 2013.
- Professor Carol V. Robinson, “Finding the Right Balance”, 11 March 2014
- Professor Petra Fromme, “A New Era in Structural Biology”, 12 March 2015
- Professor Dame Kay Davies CBE FRS FMedSci, “Therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy in the genomic era” 4 March 2016