A sparkling career

March 17, 1995

A recent memorial service for crystallographer Dorothy Crowfoot. Hodgkin, the only British woman to win a Nobel prize for science, was attended by the great and the good. Olga Wojtas traces the life of a shining example.

Dorothy Hodgkin, the third female Nobel prizewinner for chemistry after Marie Curie and her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, was once being interviewed by a journalist who listed her achievements in determining the structure of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. Hodgkin interrupted: "You ought to realise that for 90 per cent of my life, I'm dealing with failure, and occasionally I have a success."

It was a typical response - modesty combined with a concern for accuracy - but it remains difficult to associate failure with Hodgkin.

A fortnight ago, a service of thanksgiving was held at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, for the life of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who died in July 1994 aged 84. She was an exceptional member of an exceptional family. As well as being the only British woman to win a Nobel science prize, she was the first woman since Florence Nightingale to be awarded the Order of Merit. She became a fellow of the Royal Society aged 37, and then its first Wolfson research professor.

She was born in Cairo, where her father, John Crowfoot, a pioneer of secular education for girls in the Sudan, was working with the Egyptian ministry of education. Her mother, Grace Mary Crowfoot, was prevented from going to university to study medicine because her family believed her eyes were too weak, but she became an archaeologist and botanist and an international expert on weaving. She was also an activist for the newly established League of Nations, nurturing her daughter's lifelong commitment to peace.

The young Dorothy Crowfoot developed an interest in chemistry. By 13 she was conducting chemical spot tests on minerals she had excavated while visiting her parents in the Sudan. She set up a lab in the attic, and studied chemistry alongside the boys in her Suffolk local authority school, coming top of her year for the whole country in the School Certificate, and becoming the school's first pupil to go to Oxford University.

Because she needed two sciences to get into Somerville, she studied botany with her mother's help, and also picked up Latin in one year. She moved to Cambridge for her doctorate, where her supervisor was the dynamic young crystallography pioneer J. D. Bernal, but Somerville wooed her back with fellowships, appointing her as chemistry tutor in 1936.

At the time, crystallographers were often despised by chemists as mere technicians, but David Phillips, former professor of molecular biology at Oxford, stresses that Hodgkin was a great chemist as well as a crystallographer, her extraordinary intuition underpinned by chemical understanding.

X-ray crystallography involves investigating the chemical structure of a substance by passing X-rays through crystals and finding the relative positions of their atoms in space by calculations from the diffraction effects.

But Hodgkin did not have the benefit of today's electronic scanners and computers. Her lab was in the university museum, scene of the famous debate in which Huxley championed Darwin's theory of the origin of species in 1861. She had to clamber up a rickety ladder with every crystal to reach the polarising microscope, and then had to interpret the X-ray film visually, making thousands of observations with pencil and paper.

Primitive calculating machines existed, but they could not even subtract. Calculations that would now take less than a minute took weeks and months. In the 1950s, while working on the structure of vitamin B12, she had access to a computer at the University of California at Los Angeles, but because of the expense of airmail, communication was initially by seamail, which took six weeks.

She would often hum softly when preoccupied by a problem, and during one particularly frustrating piece of work, research student Margaret Adams, now chemistry tutor at Somerville, suddenly realised that what was being hummed was the hymn "Through the night of doubt and sorrow''.

Hodgkin constantly pushed crystallography techniques to new levels of complexity. This demanded immense patience and tenacity, but she also had an unerring instinct about what would work, even when all the evidence was apparently against her.

Crystallographic information is presented in the form of a map, and Hodgkin's inspired skill at interpretation, deciding what was a small atom, and what was simply noise, overcame initial scepticism from the scientific community.

David Phillips says that watching her looking at the maps and deciding what was real reminded him of the words from A Midsummer Night's Dream: she "turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name".

The intellectual challenge of crystallography was Hodgkin's prime motivation, but her choice of chemical compounds, of key importance to modern medicine and biochemistry, could hardly have been accidental. During the war, she determined the structure of penicillin, and in her presidential address to the British Association in 1978, stressed how it had improved life expectancy. Around 3,000 young children had died each year from infectious diseases in the early 1930s, but 30 years later, this had dropped to 500.

In 1956 she determined the structure of vitamin B12, used to fight pernicious anaemia, and in 1969 the hormone insulin, 34 years after she first began to study it. Among the other molecules she successfully investigated were cholesterol and vitamin D.

She believed in working cooperatively and inspired remarkable loyalty and devotion among colleagues. In the Festschrift for her 70th birthday, Structural Studies on Molecules of Biological Interest, while male academics are called by their surnames, Hodgkin is invariably referred to as "Dorothy". This is no quaintly sexist convention, but a sign of affection, and Hodgkin's own preference. Perhaps because X-ray crystallography was a relatively new branch of science, Bernal's Cambridge lab where she first worked had no sense of hierarchy, and she deliberately avoided standing on ceremony throughout her life. When Guy Dodson, now professor of chemistry at York University, turned up to join her research team and called her "Professor Hodgkin", she told him the lab followed the American custom of first names, which she thought was much nicer.

Pauline Harrison, emeritus professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Sheffield University, says: "She had a sense of being democratic - she was interested in solving problems, and in helping people in their careers, not just looking to her own career." Her belief in cooperation was not universally applauded, however, and some infuriated empire-builders saw her as encouraging other researchers to encroach on "their" territory.

It is jokingly said that anyone who had coughed in the corridors of the laboratory was listed as a co-author in her first vitamin B12 paper. Following a later disagreement with an academic who objected to this liberal approach, Hodgkin told Dodson: "You never regret being generous." And, although her generosity sprang from instinct rather than strategy, it paid dividends. The world of scientific discoveries can be a cut-throat one, and former student Jenny Glusker says that because she was so kindhearted, people would warn her of any impending threat. "It wasn't obvious, but underneath it all, she was tough," says Glusker, now a senior researcher at the Institute of Cancer Research in Philadelphia. "She had to watch out for herself, and she made sure she didn't let other people trample over her."

David Phillips believes that she could not have achieved what she did without being single-minded, and if she appeared uncompetitive this was because she was in the happy position of being ahead of other people. Guy Dodson disagrees. "She was not able to see another person doing scientific work as a competitor." The important thing was not who solved the problem, but that the problem was solved. Her daughter, Liz Hodgkin, echoes this view. "I think she was an interesting case because she wasn't pushy, she wasn't trying to get something out before someone else got it. But she could have found a total validation in her work, and I could imagine her not getting married at all."

Her marriage, however, to the educationist and Africanist Thomas Hodgkin, was exceptionally happy, and he was one of her strongest supporters. The couple had three children: Luke, now a reader in maths at King's College, London; Liz, a Middle East researcher for Amnesty International; and Toby, director of genetic diversity at the international plant breeding genetic resources institute in Rome. To combine children and work took an understanding husband, Hodgkin said, and she would quote the story of fellow crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, who, on marriage, considered abandoning research to devote herself to domesticity. This was firmly rejected by her husband, who said he had not married to get a free housekeeper.

As for family, Hodgkin listed "children" as a recreation in her Who's Who entry, and Glusker says: "She gave the children a lot of attention, providing time to talk to them rather than fussing around the house. I learnt a lot from her about what was important and what you let slide." Marriage brought only one minor regret: she would have preferred to have been known professionally as Dorothy Crowfoot, but accepted Hodgkin after a scientific article was inadvertently published under her married name.

She was irritated by attempts to portray her as a feminist role model, although she was a passionate supporter of women's colleges and did all she could to help able students succeed. Women lost fellowships and grants when they married, even if their partner was an equally impecunious postgraduate, and Hodgkin was tireless in fighting for a restoration of their funds, despite having to do this on a case by case basis.

Her concern with fairness and justice also showed itself in an idealistic socialism and internationalism. Most of her research students came from overseas. She struggled to have China admitted to international scientific unions, and became a founder member of Pugwash, the international organisation that pressed for nuclear disarmament and tried to keep communications going between western scientists and scientists behind the Iron Curtain.

She has been accused of political naivety, but has been equally admired for her lack of cynicism. She did not see capitalism as desirable, but she was aware of the barbarity of totalitarian regimes. She visited China during the Cultural Revolution, at one stage being taken in a boat to the centre of a lake before Chinese friends dared speak freely. But she was thrilled to find that despite the difficulties, Chinese scientists had been working independently on the structure of insulin, and immediately presented their results to an international conference.

Her membership of what was considered a fellow-travelling organisation of scientists for peace led to her being blacklisted by the United States in the 1950s. She turned out to be still blacklisted when, as an 80-year-old Nobel prizewinner, she was invited to an American conference, and only Liz Hodgkin's dogged persistence during a day-long wait at the London embassy gained her a visa.

She never proselytised in the lab, and was sucked into public life after her Nobel prize made her a high-profile patron and sponsor. But she was prepared to use her influence where she could. Among her many students to have won prominence is the former Margaret Roberts, whose BSc thesis Hodgkin supervised in 1948. No personal memory is available from Lady Thatcher: her office explained that this period in the former prime minister's life would be covered in the forthcoming volume of her memoirs, and it would therefore be a breach of contract for her to talk about Hodgkin.

However, there seems to have been a genuine affection between supervisor and student, and in the late 1980s Hodgkin sought out the prime minister for a lunch meeting at which she put forward the views of Soviet scientists. They said they did not want war, and believed their leaders did not want war, but found this impossible to convey to Mrs Thatcher, who they felt scarcely saw them as human. There were undoubtedly many other factors hastening the end of the Cold War, but after that lunchtime discussion, there was a change in British foreign policy.

It is not a victory Dorothy Hodgkin would have claimed for herself. Self-importance was not a characteristic of the woman who once explained her scientific achievements by saying she was "just lucky" to have fallen in with a group of pioneers.

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