Hodgkin, Dorothy (1910–1994)

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Hodgkin, Dorothy (1910–1994)

English biochemist, Nobel laureate, and peace activist who is best known for her discovery of the structures of penicillin and vitamin B-12. Born Dorothy Mary Crowfoot on May 12, 1910, in Cairo, Egypt; died on July 29, 1994, at her home in Shipstonon-Stour, in Warwickshire county in central England, after suffering a stroke; daughter of John Winter (a classics scholar and archaeologist) and Grace Mary (Hood) Crowfoot (a weaver and amateur botanist); graduated from Sir John Lehman School, Beccles, 1928; Somerville College, Oxford, B.A., 1931; Cambridge University, Ph.D., 1936; married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, on December 16, 1937; children: Luke Hodgkin (b. 1938); Elizabeth Hodgkin (b. 1941); Tobias Hodgkin (b. 1946).

Honors and awards:

fellow, Royal Society (1947); Royal Medalist of the Royal Society (1956); Nobel Prize in chemistry (1964); British Order of Merit (1965); First Freedom of Beccles (1965); Copley Medal, Royal Society (1976); Mikhail Lomonosov Gold Medal, Soviet Academy of Science (1982); Dimitrov Prize (1984); Lenin Plea Prize (1987); numerous honorary doctorates, including Leeds, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, York, and Dalhousie universities.

Became fellow of Somerville College, Oxford (1936); discovered crystalline structure of penicillin (1946); appointed university lecturer and demonstrator at Oxford (1946); discovered structure of vitamin B-12 (1954); became university reader at Oxford (1957); served as Wolfson Research Professor of Chemistry, Royal Society (1960–77); discovered structure of insulin (1969); served as president of Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs (1975); served as president of International Union of Crystallography (1972–75); served as president of British Association for the Advancement of Science (1977–78); was chancellor of Bristol University (1970–88); was a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford (1977–82).

Selected writings:

Birkbeck, Science, and History (Birkbeck College, 1970); Wondering Scientists (Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1974);Kathleen Lonsdale : A Biographical Memoir (Royal Society, 1976).

Thanks to the peripatetic lifestyle of her parents, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin's education was a hodgepodge of private schools, governesses, and private study with her mother and siblings in her early years. In 1923, she was 13 years old when she and her sister Joan left their grandmother's home in England for a six-month stay with their parents in the Sudan, where their father was director of education and antiquities. The Crowfoots had decided a year in that part of the world would be good for the girls, and, while their father worked, their mother concentrated on taking them to museums, galleries, and scientific laboratories in the Sudan and neighboring countries. One visit was to the geological department of the Cairo Wellcome Institute Laboratories, headed by the noted soil chemist Dr. A.F. Joseph, who was a family friend. To amuse the girls, geologists at the laboratory showed them how to collect gold samples by panning the sand from streambeds, and the girls were soon applying the process to the stream in their parents' garden. When Dorothy became curious about a piece of black shiny mineral, she returned with it to the Wellcome Laboratory, where Dr. Joseph helped her to analyze the substance and discover that it was a mixed ore of iron and titanium, called ilmenite. Impressed by Dorothy's interest, Joseph gave her a surveyor's box with reagents for testing mineral samples. Upon her return to England, Dorothy set up a small laboratory in the attic. On her 16th birthday, when she received a children's book on chemistry written by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Henry Bragg, which described how X-rays could be used to expose the atoms in crystals, Dorothy knew she had found her life's work.

Born on May 12, 1910, in Cairo, Egypt, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was the eldest of four daughters of John Winter Crowfoot, who was then an inspector in the Ministry of Education in Cairo, and Molly Hood Crowfoot , whose only academic training had been a French finishing school education. Molly Crowfoot became an excellent amateur botanist, however, studying local plants and making drawings for a government survey on the flora of the Sudan during her husband's tenure in the British colony. The couple doted on their children and placed a high value on their education.

In 1914, while the Crowfoots were on vacation in England, the childhood of four-year-old Dorothy, as well as her sisters, was shattered by the outbreak of the World War I. Believing that it was too dangerous for the children to return to the Middle East, the parents left them in the care of a nanny, residing near John's mother's home in Brighton, and returned to his post in the Sudan. In the ensuing four years of war, international travel was restricted by the danger of German submarines, and Dorothy and her sisters only saw their mother once. At the end of the war, Molly spent a year becoming reacquainted with her children, but she spent at least half of every subsequent year residing with her husband at his foreign posts. Dorothy later believed that this early separation helped to make her independent and strengthened her fortitude to face the challenges of her scientific career.

At age 11, Dorothy enrolled at the Sir John Lehman School in Beccles, where the desultory approach to her earlier education left her lagging far behind her peers in several fundamental learning skills, particularly mathematics; then, having caught up in this subject, she discovered that girls in the school were not permitted to study chemistry. Fortunately, the chemistry instructor, who was a woman, decided to make a special exception for Dorothy and another girl to study in her class.

Dorothy graduated from Beccles in 1928, with plans to study chemistry at Oxford University. Once again, however, her educational background stood in her way, since the Oxford entrance examination required a knowledge of both Latin and a second science. Dorothy's mother became her tutor in botany and helped her gain enough understanding of Latin to pass the exam.

Fry, Margery (1874–1958)

English prison reformer. Born Sara Margery Fry in 1874; died in 1958; attended Roedean and Somerville College, Oxford; never married; no children.

College educated at Oxford, Margery Fry began her career in 1899 as the warden of the women's hostel at Birmingham University, where she remained until 1904. During World War I, she worked in France for the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, after which she became secretary of the Penal Reform League, which was amalgamated in 1921 as the Howard League for Penal Reform. From 1919 to 1926, Fry served as chair of the league, a period also marked by her increasing involvement in the campaign to abolish capital punishment. Appointed a magistrate in 1921, Fry served as the education advisor to Holloway Prison in 1922 and as principal of Somerville College from 1926 to 1931.

Later in her career, Fry became involved in the international aspects of prison improvement, serving as a member of the Colonial Office Advisory Committee on Penal Reform in 1936. She lectured on the subject in China and the United States and frequently participated on the BBC programs "Any Questions?" and "The Brains Trust." Her publications include The Future Treatment of the Adult Offender (1944) and Arms of the Law (1951).

Admitted to Oxford, Hodgkin found an academic climate uncongenial to fostering the careers of women in science. During the late 1920s, officials at the university became increasingly worried about what they perceived to be an unhealthy infiltration of women. There was talk of Oxford's rival university at Cambridge being more "virile," because women there numbered only 10%, while 15% of the Oxford students were women. To stem this tide of "feminization," it was decided that women students would be limited to fewer than 800, and their social and educational opportunities would be severely restricted. Women attended classes and studied separate from the men, and were excluded from the Oxford debating club and other prestigious campus organizations. Nevertheless, Hodgkin found friendly scientific instructors at Somerville, the women's college she attended. Its principal was Margery Fry , who was especially supportive of Dorothy's scientific ambitions; during vacations, Hodgkin was allowed to remain on campus to do research with the college lecturers and demonstrators. One instructor, the well-known chemist E.G.J. Hartley, even lent her the key to his office so she could work there on her own.

Dorothy, who became especially skilled in the use of X-ray crystallography to determine the atomic structure of molecules, studied with the noted chemist H.M. Powell at Oxford and, during one summer, visited the laboratory of Professor Victor Goldschmidt in Heidelberg. By the time of her graduation in 1932, she had an excellent knowledge of inorganic chemistry and X-ray crystallography. Like many other college-educated women, she had difficulty finding a scientific post, until she was recommended by her old friend from Cairo, A.F. Joseph, for a job with John Desmond Bernal, who was then doing pioneer research in X-ray crystallography at Cambridge University.

The job paid only £75 per year, and Hodgkin was forced to borrow £200 from an aunt to meet expenses. But Bernal was among the first to investigate the use of X-ray techniques in the study of biological molecules, particularly proteins, and her work for him exposed her to advanced research in the crystalline structure of biological compounds. Bernal believed that uncovering the molecular structure of a specific biological compound would make its physical properties better understood and lead to its synthesis in the laboratory. Under Bernal's supervision, Hodgkin made some of the earliest X-ray studies of vitamin B-1, Vitamin D, various sex hormones, and other protein molecules.

Bernal was also an excellent scientific role model and firmly committed to equal professional opportunities for women scientists. Because of the many women he hired, crystallography became one of the few branches of chemistry in which significant numbers of women were employed. This congenial laboratory atmosphere was in sharp contrast to the second-class status Dorothy had felt as a student at Oxford.

While still on her fellowship, Hodgkin was offered a teaching position in chemistry at her alma mater, Somerville College. She at first declined, wishing to remain with Bernal, and also perhaps remembering the treatment of women at Oxford. Somerville then offered to extend her fellowship with Bernal for a second year and allow her a third year at Oxford toward completing her doctoral research before she commenced teaching. Since teaching jobs in Britain were scarce at the time, Dorothy reluctantly agreed to Somerville's terms.

Unfortunately, the discrimination she experienced as a teacher at Oxford was similar to what she had faced as a student. According to Dennis Parker Riley, one of her students there, "prewar Oxford was a masculine stronghold and science faculties even more so." Excluded from the mainstream of the university's scientific life, she was denied membership in the chemistry club, which brought together chemists from all the Oxford colleges, excluded from its weekly research meetings. and never invited to present her work before the membership, despite the recognized importance of her research.

Fortunately, the chemistry student organization was more egalitarian. Dorothy was invited to lecture to the group, and her talks were well attended by students as well as some of the same colleagues who excluded her from the chemistry club. Riley found her so impressive that he asked her to be his research advisor, arousing scorn among many male students and members of the faculty. "Here I was," recalled Riley, "a member of a prestigious college choosing to do my fourth year's research in a new borderline subject with a young female who held no university appointment but only a fellowship in a women's college."

Hodgkin also endured inferior research quarters. Her laboratory, located in the basement of the Oxford University Museum, was a dumping ground for old biological specimens and anthropological exhibits, and her equipment was far from adequate. Because Britain was in a severe economic crisis, the chemistry department had only £50 per year to spend on apparatus, and Dorothy's X-ray room was strung with a dangerous collection of electrical wires suggestive of a scene from a horror movie. With the help of Sir Robert Robinson, professor of inorganic chemistry, she obtained a small grant from a British chemical firm for the purchase of some needed equipment, but her research budget remained paltry, and she was seldom able to hire more than one or two students to help in her research.

In the winter of 1934, her woes were compounded by the onset of a chronic illness that was to plague her for the rest of her life. When the joints in her hands became sore and badly inflamed, she was taken by her parents to see a specialist in London who diagnosed severe rheumatoid arthritis. Although the painful disease severely hampered her manual dexterity, Dorothy never allowed it to stop her work.

Continuing the research on biological crystals she had begun under Bernal, Hodgkin wrote her dissertation on the crystalline structure of the

sterols, and focused her research on cholesterol, one of the most difficult substances to analyze. The work was further complicated by the limited capabilities of adding machines then available, so that many of her calculations took months or even years to complete. In 1936, conditions were substantially improved when she was able to purchase a set of Beevers and Lipson strips, which greatly speeded the calculation of X-ray angles.

In 1937, after several years of laboring under difficult conditions, Dorothy completed her doctorate. In the spring of that year, she also met the man who would become her husband. In London to photograph insulin crystals at the Royal Institute, she paid a visit to her old friend from Somerville, Margery Fry, and met Fry's cousin, Thomas L. Hodgkin, the son of the noted historian and provost of Queen's College, Robert H. Hodgkin. Dorothy was attracted to Thomas' sense of humor, the two found they had much in common, and they married in December 1937.

The relationship proved to be more egalitarian than most marriages of the time. According to a friend of Dorothy Hodgkin, Anne Sayre , "It was a remarkable marriage because early on Thomas decided she was the more creative of the two and that she was going to have a chance." The couple had three children, and Thomas did the largest share of childcare, usually watching them in the evenings so that Hodgkin could return to work in her lab. Because of Thomas' willing involvement in their childrearing, Hodgkin found it "reasonably easy" to combine motherhood with a career in science, and "had no sense of guilt in continuing with scientific work—it seemed a natural thing to do at that period."

In 1939, the outbreak of another World War led to disruptions throughout Oxford as well as in Dorothy's home life. Young male students were soon joining the armed forces to battle the Axis powers, and when the nearby city of London came under frequent attack from German bombs, Oxford was one of many outlying towns flooded with escaping Londoners. The Hodgkinses joined other local families in taking in these refugees from the blitz, some of whom could pitch in with the housework, adding to the time Hodgkin could spend on her research.

By then, wartime Britain was providing her with a new scientific problem to tackle. Infectious disease, as well as infections from battlefield wounds had become rampant, and soldiers and civilians alike were in desperate need of a newly discovered drug called penicillin, which was known to combat a number of bacterial infections. Discovered in the early 1930s by Britain's Alexander Fleming, the drug was in too-short supply to be of use to many people, and drug companies would remain unable to manufacture it in mass quantities until its molecular structure had been determined. Both British and American authorities, recognizing the drug as vital to the war effort, joined in speeding up the research. (See Gladys Lounsbury Hobby.) Hodgkin received a research grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to improve her laboratory, and a state-of-the-art analog computer from IBM to speed up her calculations, and in 1946, four years after she began her work in this area, she cracked the code of the penicillin molecule.

Despite such groundbreaking work, Hodgkin had yet to attain a regular university appointment. It was only when a male colleague at Oxford interceded on her behalf that she was finally made a university lecturer, which paid considerably more than her earlier fellowship post. Oxford was still so slow in promoting her that she did not acquire the position of reader (equivalent in the U.S. to a full professorship) until 1957. Even then, it was another year before she got adequate laboratory facilities.

Because Oxford's ambivalence toward its women scientists continued, most of Hodgkin's accolades came from outside the university. Shortly after the war ended, she was made a fellow of the Royal Society of England, a rare honor for one so young, and even more rare for a woman scientist. In 1956, Hodgkin was made a Royal Medalist of the Royal Society. In 1960, she received an endowed chair at Oxford, funded not by the university but by the Royal Society. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Hodgkin received numerous other honors and awards, including a highly coveted place in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1958.

Meanwhile, her study of the crystalline structures of various biological substances continued. Her next major project after penicillin was the vitamin B-12, which was known to prevent and treat pernicious anemia in humans. This work was greatly speeded up through access to relatively powerful computers at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1957, Hodgkin published the results of her work on B-12, and seven years later, she received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work on penicillin and B-12, the first British woman, and the fifth woman, ever to be honored with a Nobel in science. The following year, Hodgkin received the Order of Merit, which had been given to only one other Englishwoman, Florence Nightingale .

After receiving the Nobel, Hodgkin turned to a project that had preoccupied her since her early career at Oxford: the crystalline structure of insulin. Because of its highly complicated structure, and because computer technology had been in its infancy during the early years of her career, the key to the structure of this substance had long eluded her. It was not until 1969, 30 years after she began to explore the problem, that Hodgkin and her staff finally unlocked the secrets of this matter, paving the way for future advances in the understanding and treatment of diabetes, which is caused by low insulin production by the body.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Hodgkin also became increasingly involved in another lifelong passion—the peace movement. Her deep concerns about the issue were inherited largely from her mother, who had lost four brothers killed in World War I; in 1924, she had accompanied her mother to a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. In the late 1960s, Hodgkin joined in protests against the war in Vietnam and visited Hanoi and China to demonstrate her desire for a swift end to the conflict. In 1975, she was asked by the noted physicist Rudolf E. Peierls to be president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an organization that campaigns for world peace and disarmament. During the late 1980s, Hodgkin encouraged a former student of hers, Margaret Thatcher , to visit the Soviet Union and establish a better rapport with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1977, Hodgkin retired from scientific life and moved to a home in the Cotswolds north of Oxford. Her husband died of emphysema in 1982. Although wheelchair-bound from arthritis and a broken pelvis, she continued to actively participate in both scientific and peace conferences. In an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hodgkin summed up the relationship between her life in science and in the peace movement: "How to abolish arms and achieve a peaceful world is necessarily our first objective. If some—and preferably all—of the million dollars spent every minute on arms were turned to the abolition of poverty from the world, many causes of conflict would vanish." On July 29, 1994, Dorothy Hodgkin died at her home in Shipston-on-Stour, in Warwickshire county in central England, after suffering a stroke.


Brasted, Robert C., and Peter Farago. "Interview with Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin," in Journal of Chemical Education. Vol. 54, April 1977, pp. 214–215.

Dodson, Guy, Jenny P. Glusker, and David Sayre, eds. Structural Studies on Molecules of Biological Interest, a Volume in Honor of Professor Dorothy Hodgkin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

Hodgkin, Dorothy. "It's Up to Us!" in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. January 1981, pp. 38–39.

Julian, Maureen M. "Profiles in Chemistry," in Journal of Chemical Education. Vol. 59. February 1982, pp. 124–125.

McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch. Nobel Prize Women in Science. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1993.

Opfel, Olga S. The Lady Laureates: Women Who Have Won the Nobel Prize. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978.

Shiels, Barbara. Winners: Women and the Nobel Prize. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1985.

Wolpert, Lewis, and Alison Richards. A Passion for Science. Oxford University Press, 1988.

suggested reading:

Kass-Simon, G., and Patricia Farnes, eds. Women of Science: Righting the Record. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1990.

Phillips, Patricia. The Scientific Lady: A Social History of Women's Scientific Interests. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1990.

Vare, Ethlie Ann, and Greg Ptacek. Mothers of Invention. Morrow Press, 1988.


Rockefeller Archive Center, Pocantico Hills, NY. Record Group 1.1, Series 401, Box 38, Folders 491 and 487.

Heather Munro Prescott , Associate Professor of History, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, Connecticut

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