Paul Mc Laughlin
pm at mrc-lmb.cam.ac.uk
Mon Aug 22 06:09:35 EST 1994
Independent Newspaper ( London) and Max Perutz have kindly agreed that
the following obituary for Dorothy Hodgkin may be reproduced in this
Professor Dorothy Hodgkin
In October 1964 the Daily Mail carried a headline "Grandmother wins
Nobel Prize". Dorothy Hodgkin won it "for her determination by X-ray
techniques of the structures of biologically important molecules".
She used a physical method, X-ray crystallography, first developed by W.
L. Bragg, to find the arrangements of the atoms in simple salts and
minerals. She had the courage, skill, and sheer willpower to extend the
method to compounds that were far more complex than anything attempted
before. The most important of these were cholesterol, vitamin D,
penicillin and vitamin B12. Later she was most famous for her work on
insulin, but this reached its climax only five years after she had won
In the early Forties, when Howard Florey and Ernest Chain had isolated
penicillin from Alexander Fleming's mould, some of the best chemists in
Britain and the United States tried to find its chemical constitution.
They were taken aback when a young woman, using not chemistry but X-ray
analysis, then still mistrusted as an upstart physical technique, had the
face to tell them what it was. When Dorothy Hodgkin insisted that its
core was a ring of three carbon atoms and a nitrogen which was believed
to be too unstable to exist, one of the chemists, John Cornforth,
exclaimed angrily: "If that's the formula of penicillin, I'll give up
chemistry and grow mushrooms". Fortunately he swallowed his words and
won the Chemistry Prize himself 30 years later. Hodgkin's formula proved
right and was the starting-point for the synthesis of chemically modified
penicillins that have saved many lives.
Pernicious anaemia used to be deadly until the early Thirties when it
was discovered that it could be kept in check by liver extracts. In 1948
the active principle, vitamin B12, was isolated from liver in crystalline
form, and chemists began to wonder what its formula was. The first X-ray
diffraction pictures showed that the vitamin contained over a thousand
atoms, compared to penicillin's 39; it took Hodgkin and an army of
helpers eight years to solve its structure. Like penicillin, vitamin
B12 showed chemical features not encountered before, such as a strange
ring of nitrogens and carbon atoms surrounding its central cobalt atom
and a novel kind of bond from the cobalt atom to the carbon atoms of a
sugar ring that provided the clue to the vitamin's biological function.
The Nobel Prize was awarded to Hodgkin not just for determining the
structures of several vitally important compounds, but also for extending
the bounds of chemistry itself.
In 1935 Dorothy Crowfoot, as she then was, put a crystal of insulin in
front of an X-ray beam and placed a photographic beam behind it. That
night, when she developed the film, she saw minute, regularly arranged
spots forming a diffraction pattern that held out the prospect of solving
insulin's structure. Later that night she wandered around the streets of
Oxford, madly excited that she might be the first to determine the
structure of a protein, but next morning she woke with a start: could she
be sure that her crystals really were insulin rather than some trivial
salt? She rushed back to the lab before breakfast. A simple spot test
on a microscope showed that her crystals took up a stain characteristic
for protein, which revived her hopes. She never imaged that it would
take her 34 years to solve that complex structure, nor that once solved
it would have practical applications. It has recently enabled genetic
engineers to change the chemistry of insulin in order to improve its
benefits for diabetics.
Dorothy Hodgkin's father, J. W. Crowfoot, was Education Officer in
Khartoum and an archaeologist; her mother too was an archaeologist, with
a particular interest in the history of weaving. When Dorothy was a
child, they lived next door to the Sudan Government Chemist, Dr. A. F.
Joseph. It was "Uncle Joseph"'s early encouragement that largely excited
her interest in science. Later he introduced her to the Cambridge
Professor of Physical Chemistry, T. Martin Lowry, who advised her to work
with J. D. Bernal.
It was when Dorothy Crowfoot was 24 and working in Cambridge with Bernal
on crystals of another protein, the digestive enzyme pepsin, that Bernal
made his crucial discovery of their rich X-ray diffraction patterns.
But, on the day that he did, her parents had taken her to London to
consult a specialist about persistent pains in her hands. He diagnosed
the onset of the rheumatoid arthritis that was to cripple her hands and
feet, but it never slowed her determined pursuit of science.
At Oxford, Dorothy Hodgkin used to labour on the structure of life in a
crypt-like room tucked away in a corner of Ruskin's Cathedral of Science,
the Oxford Museum. Her Gothic window was high above, as in a monk's
cell, and beneath it was a gallery reachable only by a ladder. Up there
she would mount her crystals for X-ray analysis, and descent
precariously, clutching her treasure with one hand and balancing herself
on the ladder with the other. For all its gloomy setting, Hodgkin's lab
was a jolly place. As Chemistry Tutor at Somerville she always had girls
doing crystal structures for their fourth year and two or three research
students of either sex working for their Ph.D.s. They were a cheerful
lot, not just because they were young, but because her gentle and
affectionate guidance led most of them on to interesting results. Her
best-known pupil, however, made her name in a career other than
chemistry: Margaret Roberts, later Margaret Thatcher, worked as a
fourth-year student on X-ray crystallography in Dorothy Hodgkin's
laboratory. They always maintained a great affection for each other,
despite their political differences.
In 1937 Dorothy married the historian Thomas Hodgkin. They had three
children and remained a devoted couple until Thomas's death in 1982.
Some women intellectuals regard their children as distracting impediments
to their careers, but Dorothy radiated motherly warmth even while doing
scientific work. Concentration came to her so easily that she could give
all her attention to a child's chatter at one moment and switch to
complex calculations the next. The Hodgkin's home was chaotic, cheerful,
welcoming and hospitable to visitors, including many from the Third World.
"There are certain letters which I dread to open," she once told me,
"and when I saw one from Buckingham Palace I left it sealed, fearing that
they wanted to make me Dame Dorothy." It would have made her feel like a
femme formidable, which she so happily was not. She was relieved to find
that the Queen offered her the Order of Merit, a much greater honour.
She pursued her crystallographic studies, not for the sake of honours,
but because this was what she liked to do. There was magic about her
person. She had no enemies, not even among those whose scientific
theories she demolished or whose political views she opposed. Just as
her X-ray cameras bared the intrinsic beauty beneath the rough surface of
things, so the warmth and gentleness of her approach to people uncovered
in everyone, even the most hardened scientific crook, some hidden kernel
of goodness. She was once asked in a BBC radio interview whether she
felt handicapped in her career by being a woman. "As a matter of fact,"
she replied ingenuously, "men were always particularly nice and helpful
to me because I was a woman." At scientific meetings she would seem lost
in a dream, until she suddenly came out with some penetrating remark,
usually made in a diffident tone of voice, and followed by a little
laugh, as if wanting to excuse herself for having put everyone else to
She shared her husband's faith in the socialist paradise, no matter
whether this was in the Soviet Union, China or Vietnam, and tended to
close her eyes to the evils of the Communist dictatorships. Her high
standing in the Soviet scientific community was recognised in 1982 by the
award of the Lomonosov Gold Medal. In 1987 she was awarded the Lenin
Peace Prize, in part no doubt for her championing of the Soviet cause,
but also for her efforts to ease tension between East and West as
President of the "Pugwash" conferences on Science and World Affairs.
In 1955, the first of these conferences was stimulated by the
Einstein-Russel Manifesto that drew attention to the mortal danger of
thermonuclear war. They have since been held annually and have brought
together scientists from all countries, meeting as individuals rather
than representatives of governments and seeking co-operative solutions to
disarmament and the reduction of international tension. Dorothy Hodgkin
was made President in 1975. In the face of diametrically opposed views
often angrily expressed by scientists from East and West or North and
South, a few gentle thoughtful words in her soft voice cooled tempers and
forestalled crises. She cared deeply for the Arab cause in the Middle
East, for the poorer African countries, for China and Vietnam, and in
times of tension she helped to keep open scientific dialogue between them
and the West.
In 1970 Hodgkin was elected Chancellor of Bristol University, an office
to which she brought a breath of fresh air. She attended meetings
regularly and often acted as the university's conscience, taking an
interest in individuals, particularly if she thought they had been hard
done by. She was the first chancellor of the university always to visit
the Students' Union and to have lunch with its officers, and she took a
keen interest in the research of her crystallographic colleagues. She
supported the establishment of a Hodgkin Scholarship for a student from
the Third World and of Hodgkin House to accommodate overseas students,
both named after her late husband, a specialist in African studies.
Dorothy Hodgkin's uncanny knack of solving difficult structures came
from a combination of manual skill, mathematical ability and profound
knowledge of crystallography and chemistry. It often led her and her
alone to recognise what the initially blurred maps emerging from X-ray
analysis were trying to tell. She will be remembered as a great chemist,
a saintly, gentle and tolerant lover of people and a devoted protagonist
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