In the early 1950s, as the X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was zeroing in on an instructive image of DNA, she took a set of her X-ray photographs to a pioneer in the field: Dorothy Hodgkin. The women spread the photos out on a dusty table in Hodgkin's lab — a converted basement in Oxford's natural history museum. Franklin proposed three possibilities for the structure, or "space group," of the DNA crystal but Hodgkin pointed out that two of Franklin's proposals couldn't work, though the third option might. In the same discussion, Hodgkin described Franklin's DNA photographs as the best she had ever seen.
About a decade after this meeting, in 1962, five male colleagues of these two women accepted Nobel Prizes. Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and James Watson won for physiology, and their prize-winning accomplishment in uncovering the structure of DNA likely wouldn't have happened without Franklin's photographs. Franklin herself was precluded from winning a Nobel; she had died in 1958 of ovarian cancer. Dorothy Hodgkin was luckier. John Kendrew and Max Perutz won the 1962 Nobel for chemistry, and Perutz openly admitted his embarrassment at winning a Nobel before Hodgkin. He lobbied for her recognition, and she was announced the sole Nobel Prize winner for chemistry two years later.
Dorothy Mary Crowfoot was born in 1910 in Cairo, the first of four daughters. Her father worked in colonial education in Egypt and Sudan, and pursued his passion for archaeology in his spare time. Her mother, who lacked a higher education, helped in the archaeological digs and eventually became a world expert in ancient textiles. Convinced that gender should be no barrier to achievement, the couple encouraged their daughters' interests. When Mrs. Crowfoot learned that her eldest daughter liked to grow crystals, she allowed Dorothy to set up a chemistry lab in the attic. The girl also got to join a normally male-only chemistry class — taught, rather ironically, by a woman — at her school.
In 1928, just eight years after the institution began admitting any women, Dorothy arrived at Oxford. As she pondered what to cover for her one-year dissertation, the university set up an X-ray crystallography lab. In 1931, she was the only student at Oxford working on X-ray crystallography, and the work led to a paper published in Nature. A family friend helped the young woman find a spot at Cambridge under the supervision of the charismatic (and promiscuous) J.D. Bernal. Between 1933 and 1936, the Bernal and Crowfoot produced a dozen papers on crystallography. In 1934, however, she returned to Oxford. Oxford's women's college of Somerville offered her lifetime employment and her own lab, even if it was in a basement. Not long after returning to Oxford, she married Thomas Hodgkin and quickly embarked on motherhood.
Dorothy Hodgkin's income was more secure than her husband's, and the two agreed that she shouldn't halt her research to raise a family. Her employer was as accommodating as her husband. Decades before the practice became customary, Somerville offered her paid maternity leave, and helpful in-laws pitched in with childcare. Hodgkin's life was now characterized by motherhood, discoveries and, eventually, accolades.
When accolades arrived in the form of the Nobel Prize, Hodgkin was practically the last to know. Her husband was at that time the director of the Institute of African studies, and the couple was living in Ghana. Back home, Hodgkin had entrusted her affairs to a thrifty niece, who packed the telegram announcing the prize with congratulatory notes and shipped the package by sea. Hodgkin didn't learn what she'd won for nearly three months.
Hodgkin studied what are known as biologically interesting molecules. Under Bernal, she examined sterols (as in cholesterols), and continued studying them after leaving Cambridge for Oxford. In the early 1940s, she discerned the structure of penicillin, an achievement that facilitated chemical synthesis of the antibiotic. Improved computing facilities after World War II enabled her to tackle Vitamin B12. B12 was especially tricky because it had four times as many atoms as penicillin and a strange ring structure at its core that the vitamin's chemistry did not predict. The vitamin consumed her time from 1948 to 1956. (Praise for the chemical analysis of B12 was initially given to Alexander Todd of the University of Cambridge, and he presented the first lecture at a 1955 Chemical Society meeting. Hodgkin spoke up at the meeting about her own team's accomplishments.) And 34 years after her first X-ray picture of it, insulin finally yielded its structure to Hodgkin, in 1969.
Besides the Nobel Prize, Hodgkin was named a fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 — a feat, Bernal joked, that would be harder to achieve than the Nobel. The year after she won the Nobel, she was admitted to the Order of Merit, becoming the first woman since Florence Nightingale to win the honor. In 1987, she won the Lenin Peace Prize, though not for her scientific work.
Like her husband and mentor Bernal, Hodgkin adopted left-of-center causes, including opposition to nuclear warfare and reconciliation between East and West. Her biographer Georgina Ferry described the team Hodgkin led as "international, gender-balanced and left-leaning." In Marks of Genius, Stephen Hebron observes that, although there were 12 times as many males as females in honors chemistry when she was an undergraduate, her lab had an equal number of men and women, and it was known for its "collaborative, non-hierarchical working methods." Despite her political activism, she believed science trumped ideological and political boundaries. Not everybody agreed. U.S. officials were decidedly less enthusiastic about her politics than the Soviet Union; her husband's membership in the United Kingdom Communist Party got her banned from entering the United States without a CIA waiver. A Nature article observed, "Like many scientists of the 1930s and 1940s, she saw communism as the only system likely to fund science with an eye to the long view." Yet among the students she mentored was Margaret Thatcher, and after Thatcher became Prime Minister, Hodgkin occasionally lobbied her former student on causes close to her heart, though not always successfully. Although she was outspoken, Hodgkin was also soft-spoken, and reluctant to criticize others.
Lacerated in print by Nobel laureate James Watson, Rosalind Franklin is perhaps best remembered for her difficult relations with male colleagues, although that was far from the all-encompassing story of her life. Dorothy Hodgkin's story is a striking contrast. When asked if being a woman had hindered her progress, Hodgkin recalled that men had often been "nice and helpful" because of her gender. Ferry characterizes Hodgkin as extraordinarily bright and diligent, but also exceptionally lucky. Between her parents, husband, in-laws, mentors and employers, Hodgkin enjoyed opportunities other women did not. Only four women preceded her in winning the Nobel Prize in science, and by early 2010, only 10 more women achieved the same honor. In one respect, however, Hodgkin was unlucky. She suffered a bout of acute rheumatoid arthritis shortly after the birth of her first child, and later in life, she was severely disabled by arthritis, though she continued working well into old age. She died in 1994. On May 12, 2014, Google commemorated Hodgkin's 104th birthday with a special Google Doodle.
Narrative text and graphic design © by Michon Scott - Updated January 1, 2017