Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin by Fatima Sheriff

For this year’s International Women’s Day, I introduce Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. She was the first British woman to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (1964) for “determination by x-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical structures” and the second woman to win the Order of Merit after Florence Nightingale.

She elucidated the structure of penicillin in 1946, proposing a model containing a beta-lactam ring. This was so contrary to the belief that nitrogen would be too unstable, chemist John Cornforth stated “If that’s the formula… I’ll give up chemistry and grow mushrooms”. (Though wrong, he didn’t make good on his promise, probably for the best as he later won the 1975 Nobel Prize.)

In 1956, Hodgkin cracked the structure of vitamin B12. As the most complex vitamin, this discovery was said to be as significant as “breaking the sound barrier” according to Lawrence Bragg. 35 years from her first attempt, she also discovered the structure of insulin in 1969. She was proactive in raising awareness of the hormone and was critical in educating doctors as to what it meant for the treatment of diabetes.

Working closely with John Bernal, she was part of the emerging community of crystallographers in the 1930s, a new field made more accessible to women due to outbreak of the Second World War. Notably amongst her pupils was Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher) who gave her a tremendous amount of respect, putting up a portrait of her in Downing Street, though they were polar opposites politically.

Hodgkin was the longest running president of Pugwash, a high-profile socialist committee formed to reduce dangers raised by new scientific research. For 13 years, she oversaw campaigns mainly concerning prevention of nuclear war. Her husband was a communist, so she was banned from the US and in 1987 she was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize for her anti-nuclear efforts.

She truly let nothing get in her way; she once nonchalantly presented a paper to The Royal Society when she was 8 months pregnant and was the first woman to get paid maternity leave from the University of Oxford. Despite a diagnosis of early onset rheumatoid arthritis at 24, she remained scientifically active for most of her life, though wheelchair bound later in her career. “[my doctor] thinks I should take a month off work but of course I’m not going to do that”. She even attended a conference of the International Union of Crystallography at 83, a year before she passed away.

Dorothy seemed like an empathetic character, one who fought for a safer world and helped encourage many women within her field – Clara Shoemaker, Rita Cornforth, Barbara Low and Cecily Darwin Littleton to name a few. In 2010, she was the only woman commemorated in a series of stamps for the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, in the honourable company of Edward Jenner, Joseph Lister and other scientific pioneers. Though dubbed merely as ‘the Oxford housewife’ by newspapers at the time of her achievements, her legacy is illustrious and incredible.


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