26 August 2017
The only British woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and the only woman to receive the Copley medal, Dorothy Hodgkin surpassed many expectations of what a ‘housewife’ should do in the mid-twentieth century. Her ground-breaking work led to the development of protein crystallography: one of the most powerful techniques in modern science.
Born in Cairo in 1910, Hodgkin expressed an early interest in chemistry from age 10 when a family friend, living in Sudan allowed her to analyse and study some chemicals in his laboratory. From this initial love for the subject, Hodgkin went on to study chemistry at Oxford University, then later achieved her PhD at Cambridge – it was here that she discovered the technique that would shape her scientific career: crystallography.
Protein crystallography is an impressive technique, which uses X-rays to allow scientists to see the atomic and molecular structure of proteins: the building blocks of life. Hodgkin used protein crystallography to decipher the structure of many important proteins, and numerous other scientists have since followed in her footsteps. To date, researchers have determined the structures of over 90,000 proteins and other biological molecules.
Hodgkin’s achievements include the discovery of the atomic structures for cholesteryl iodide, vitamin B12, insulin and penicillin. These discoveries were described by Lawrence Bragg, a famous physicist, as being as significant as “breaking the sound barrier” due to their importance for modern healthcare. Once scientists knew the structure of drugs such as penicillin and insulin, they were able to see how their complex structures are effective as treatments for illnesses – this knowledge has been vital to 20th and 21st century medicine.
Hodgkin overcame many obstacles to success during the course of her life. At age 24, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after experiencing severe pain in both hands. Although this condition later confined her into a wheelchair, Hodgkin never let this put her off pursuing her ambitions as a scientist.
Disability was not the only difficulty Hodgkin faced; her gender also led to unjust preconceptions from other scientists and the press. When Hodgkin was awarded Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1964, the British press famously ran with the headline: “housewife wins Nobel”. Nonetheless, Hodgkin went on to prove her extraordinary abilities as a scientist, time and time again.
Hodgkin’s seminal work on protein crystallography and the structure of insulin revolutionised medical research and the development of new drugs and materials. But Hodgkin’s ground-breaking work is just one of the things that makes her such an inspirational and influential figure in scientific history. Hodgkin’s legacy is also defined by her determination, and her refusal to let setbacks deter her from advancing the cause of science.