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A top woman in chemistry

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Dorothy Hodgkin, discoverer of the structure of penicillin

Source: Image from Science Museum London / Science and Society Picture Library

Nobel prizewinning biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin, famous for discovering the structures of penicillin, insulin and Vitamin B12, was only the second woman after Florence Nightingale to receive the Order of Merit. Hodgkin, who died 20 years ago on July 29, is regarded as a pioneer in the field of x-ray crystallography studies of biomolecules.

Hodgkin was born in Egypt to British expatriate archaeologists in 1910. She was schooled in England while her parents remained in Egypt and developed an interest in chemistry from a young age. She studied chemistry at Oxford and undertook a PhD at Cambridge. It was at Cambridge that she first became aware of the potential of x-ray crystallography to determine the structure of proteins.

Somerville College Oxford appointed Hodgkin its first fellow and tutor in chemistry in 1936, a post she held until 1977. One of her students during the 1940s was a certain Margaret Roberts, who went on to become prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher had a portrait of her former tutor installed in 10 Downing Street in the 1980s.

Hodgkin is renowned for her work on three-dimensional biomolecular structures. In 1945, she published the first such structure of a steroid, cholesteryl iodide. That same year she demonstrated, contrary to scientific opinion at the time, that penicillin contains a beta-lactam ring. And in 1954, along with colleagues, she published an analysis of vitamin B12.

Hodgkin’s interest in the structure of insulin was sparked when she was given a small crystalline sample in 1934. But because the technique of x-ray crystallography was not sufficiently sophisticated at the time, it wasn’t until 35 years later in 1969 that she was finally able to resolve the structure of insulin.

Professor John Desmond Bernal was Hodgkin’s scientific mentor and he influenced her life both scientifically and politically. He was a member of the Communist Party, as was her husband, fellow Oxford lecturer Thomas Hodgkin, and her political activity meant that she was banned from entering the US in 1953.

Hodgkin began to develop rheumatoid arthritis when she was just 24, eventually spending most of her time in a wheelchair. Despite her condition, she remained active in the world of science.

Hodgkin became the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. She was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a winner of the Lenin Peace Prize and, so far, the only woman to have won the Copley Medal.

 

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