Dorothy Mary Hodgkin was a British Scientist and the Nobel Prize recipient in Chemistry in 1964. She was awarded the Prize for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances. She is credited to be UK.’s only woman scientific Nobel prize winner. Moreover, she was the third woman to win the Nobel chemistry award.
She was born in Cairo on May 12th, 1910 where her father, John Winter Crowfoot, was working in the Egyptian Education Service. He moved soon afterwards to the Sudan, where he later became both Director of Education and of Antiquities; Dorothy visited the Sudan as a girl in 1923, and acquired a strong affection for the country. After his retirement from the Sudan in 1926, her father gave most of his time to archaeology, working for some years as Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and carrying out excavations on Mount Ophel, at Jerash, Bosra and Samaria.
Her mother, Grace Mary Crowfoot (born Hood) was actively involved in all her father’s work, and became an authority in her own right on early weaving techniques. She was also a very good botanist and drew in her spare time the illustrations to the official Flora of the Sudan. Dorothy Crowfoot spent one season between school and university with her parents, excavating at Jerash and drawing mosaic pavements, and she enjoyed the experience so much, that she seriously considered giving up chemistry for archaeology.
She became interested in chemistry and in crystals at about the age of 10, and this interest was encouraged by Dr. A.F. Joseph, a friend of her parents in the Sudan, who gave her chemicals and helped her during her stay there to analyse ilmenite. Most of her childhood she spent with her sisters at Geldeston in Norfolk, from where she went by day to the Sir John Leman School, Beccles, from 1921-28. One other girl, Norah Pusey, and Dorothy Crowfoot were allowed to join the boys doing chemistry at school, with Miss Deeley as their teacher; by the end of her school career, she had decided to study chemistry and possibly biochemistry at university.
She went to Oxford and Somerville College from 1928-32 and became devoted to Margery Fry, then Principal of the College. For a brief time during her first year, she combined archaeology and chemistry, analysing glass tesserae from Jerash with E.G.J. Hartley. She attended the special course in crystallography and decided, following strong advice from F.M. Brewer, who was then her tutor, to do research in X-ray crystallography. This she began for part II Chemistry, working with H.M. Powell, as his first research student on thallium dialkyl halides, after a brief summer visit to Professor Victor Goldschmidt’s laboratory in Heidelberg.
Her going to Cambridge from Oxford to work with J.D. Bernal followed from a chance meeting in a train between Dr. A.F. Joseph and Professor Lowry. Dorothy Crowfoot was very pleased with the idea; she had heard Bernal lecture on metals in Oxford and became, as a result, for a time, unexpectedly interested in metals; the fact that in 1932 he was turning towards sterols, settled her course.
She spent two years in Cambridge, making many friends and exploring with Bernal a variety of problems. She was financed by her aunt, Dorothy Hood, who had paid all her college bills, and by a £75 scholarship from Somerville. In 1933, Somerville, gave her a research fellowship, to be held for one year at Cambridge and the second at Oxford. She returned to Somerville and Oxford in 1934 and she has remained there, except for brief intervals, ever since.
Most of her working life, she spent as Official Fellow and Tutor in Natural Science at Somerville, responsible mainly for teaching chemistry for the women’s colleges. She became a University lecturer and demonstrator in 1946, University Reader in X-ray Crystallography in 1956 and Wolfson Research Professor of the Royal Society in 1960. She worked at first in the Department of Mineralogy and Crystallography where H.L. Bowman was professor. In 1944 the department was divided and Dr. Crowfoot continued in the subdepartment of Chemical Crystallography, with H.M. Powell as Reader under Professor C.N. Hinshelwood.
When she returned to Oxford in 1934, she started to collect money for X-ray apparatus with the help of Sir Robert Robinson. Later she received much research assistance from the Rockefeller and Nuffield Foundations. She continued the research that was begun at Cambridge with Bernal on the sterols and on other biologically interesting molecules, including insulin, at first with one or two research students only. They were housed until 1958 in scattered rooms in the University museum. Their researches on penicillin began in 1942 during the war, and on vitamin B12 in 1948. Her research group grew slowly and has always been a somewhat casual organisation of students and visitors from various universities, working principally on the X-ray analysis of natural products.
Dorothy Hodgkin took part in the meetings in 1946 which led to the foundation of the International Union of Crystallography and she has visited for scientific purposes many countries, including China, the USA and the USSR. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947, a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences in 1956, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Boston) in 1958.
In 1937 she married Thomas Hodgkin, son of one historian and grandson of two others, whose main field of interest has been the history and politics of Africa and the Arab world, and who is at present Director of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, where part of her own working life is also spent. They had three children and three grandchildren. Their elder son is a mathematician, now teaching for a year at the University of Algiers, before taking up a permanent post at the new University of Warwick. Their daughter (like many of her ancestors) is an historian-teaching at girls’ secondary school in Zambia. Their younger son has spent a pre-University year in India before going to Newcastle to study Botany, and eventually Agriculture. So at the present moment they are a somewhat dispersed family.
In 1960, she became Royal Society Wolfson Research Professor at Oxford, and she retired from that chair in 1977. She held other titles at Oxford in earlier decades, and was a fellow of that university’s Somerville College from 1936 to 1977. Among her undergraduate students at Oxford was Margaret Thatcher, who went into politics, not chemistry, to become a long-serving Prime Minister. She volunteered to work for many international peace organizations and, due to Cold War restrictions, she was denied a US visa until 1990.
On July 29, 1994, she died due to a sudden stroke at her home at Shipston-on-Stour, in Warwickshire in central England. In her Memory, The British Royal Society instituted Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship for outstanding scientists at an early stage of their research career. Female candidates are particularly invited to apply for it.
With inputs from Nobel Lectures, Chemistry 1963-1970, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972