Celebrating disabled scientists: Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Mary Hodgkin (12 May 1910 – 29 July 1994). Image credit: The Nobel Foundation

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) was the 1964 Nobel Prize laureate in Chemistry, and the first and only British woman to obtain a Nobel Prize in Science. The prize was awarded “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”, including vitamin B12, insulin, penicillin, and vitamin D. This enabled them to be synthesised more efficiently and so revolutionised the treatment of a range of disorders. She was a passionate chemist, mentor, and pacifist, undeterred by the rheumatoid arthritis that affected her throughout most of her adult life.

Hodgkin’s love for chemistry began at an early age. In primary school her class made simple solutions of alum and copper sulphate, from which crystals were grown. In her own words, she “… was captured for life by chemistry, and by crystals”. This was consolidated when a family friend gifted her a chemistry set, with which she set up her own lab in the attic of her family home, where she spent many hours experimenting. 

However, once she reached secondary school, she was told that whilst the boys studied chemistry, the girls were required to take needlework classes instead. Along with another female friend, Hodgkin successfully petitioned the school to allow them to study chemistry alongside the boys, eventually obtaining qualifications in mathematics and sciences that allowed her to enroll in a chemistry degree at the University of Oxford, at a time when the number of women permitted at the university was capped at 1 in 4. Here, she was encouraged to follow her interest in crystals, and undertook a PhD with J.D. Bernal at the University of Cambridge, where she took the first X-ray crystallography images of protein crystals, which had previously been thought to be impossible due to the sheer size of biological molecules and the difficulty of generating crystals from normally water-soluble molecules. 

This paved the way for her later work as a fellow of the University of Oxford to elucidate the structures of a range of biological molecules that eventually led to her Nobel Prize. Whilst there, she tutored many influential students, including scientists Judith Howard and Michael James, and past prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who hung Hodgkin’s portrait in Downing Street whilst she was prime minister, and reportedly asked for her opinions on many scientific and political matters.

X-ray crystallography was initially developed by father-son duo Lawrence and Willliam Henry Bragg, who won the Nobel Prize for their invention in 1915. Within an X-ray crystallography machine, a purified crystal of the compound of interest is held between a detector screen and an X-ray emitter. When an X-ray beam hits the crystal, the atoms within the crystal cause the beam to diffract in different directions, producing a pattern of dark spots with differing intensities on the screen. A complex set of measurements and mathematics called Fourier transformations are applied to the angles and intensities of these diffracted beams, eventually resulting in the determination of the types and positions of the atoms within the molecule, as well as the chemical bonds they form with their neighbours. At first, these measurements and mathematics were performed by hand, but Hodgkin and her peers were vital in the development of computer programmes that could do this faster and more accurately.

Hodgkin and her team contributed greatly to the development and optimisation of the process of X-ray crystallography, along with the determination of the structure of several key biological molecules. This began with her elucidation of penicillin’s structure in 1945. As the first antibiotic, this was vitally important as it allowed its synthesis in large quantities, which was a major hurdle in its wide-spread use. The structure of vitamin B12 followed in 1954, with her finding that it contains an unusual ring structure with a novel type of chemical bond between the atoms of cobalt and carbon. This study was described by Lawrence Bragg as being as significant as “breaking the sound barrier” for her field. The structure of vitamin B12, as well as being of interest within academic circles, also paved the way for the treatment of pernicious anaemia, a potentially fatal condition where immune cells attack the stomach cells that absorb vitamin B12 from dietary sources. Therefore, the determination of its structure allowed for it to be synthesised and used in the treatment of this condition and other vitamin B12 deficiencies. 

Molecular model of Penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Image credit: Science Museum London, CC NC-SA 4.0.

Hodgkin also notably determined the structure of insulin in 1969, the product of over 35 years of hard work. As well as making mass production of insulin possible for the treatment of diabetes, this also led the way for others to genetically engineer the structure of insulin for more effective diabetes treatments.

Much of her work was performed whilst she struggled with the painful autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Autoimmune conditions occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells of the body, causing painful inflammation. In RA, the immune system attacks the tissues of the joint, usually in the hands, feet, and wrists, causing them to become inflamed and damaged. This can cause chronic joint pain, swelling, and deformation, which can occur in cycles of flare-ups. Even now, there is no known trigger for this condition, and no cure, although there are some supportive treatments such as immunosuppressants, steroids, physiotherapy, and corrective surgery. RA first began to affect Hodgkin during her PhD, where she experienced hand pain and slight deformation, but her first major flare-up first occurred in 1938 at the age of 28. After a period of sick leave, she returned to the lab and discovered that she could not operate some of the machines required for her work due to the stiffness and deformity of her hands. However, this did not stop her, and she promptly made aids to allow her to continue her work, such as long levers for switches. During her later life, her condition progressed to the point where she often required a wheelchair when walking became too painful. Despite this, she kept up a demanding schedule of global events until her retirement in 1988, at the age of 78.

Her developments in X-ray crystallography and in determining vitamin B12 and penicillin’s structure were key in Hodgkin being the sole, and first British female, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964. The Daily Mail reported this history-making event as “Oxford housewife wins Nobel” and the Observer was not much more enlightened, describing her as “affable-looking housewife Mrs Hodgkin”, who won the prize “for a thoroughly unhousewifely skill: the structure of crystals”. 

As well as allowing Hodgkin to attract much more funding and international interest to her scientific efforts, the worldwide renown given to her by the Nobel prize and other awards (which included an Order of Merit and the Copley medal) also allowed her to vocalise and promote her political views and advocacy work. She strongly believed that science should be used to improve the world, preventing war, poverty, and the development of weapons of mass destruction. By virtue of this she was a member and later president (1975-1988) of Pugwash, which “aims to develop and support the use of scientific, evidence-based policymaking, focusing on areas where nuclear and weapons of mass destruction risks are present” by bringing together scientists from all countries, for which the organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Hodgkin’s legacy remains to this day, and not only in the field of X-ray crystallography. Every year, the Royal Society awards the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship to early career researchers. This allows many postdoctoral researchers to continue their academic career on a part-time or flexible basis in order to accommodate personal circumstances such as parenting or caring responsibilities, or for health-related issues. In the current academic environment of “publish or perish” and tendency to overwork, this is considered a rare opportunity for academics to have a more flexible approach to research. The Oxford International Women’s Festival also holds an annual Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial lecture in honour of Hodgkin’s work.

Written by Susanna Riley and edited by Ailie McWhinnie.

Susanna’s thoughts… My undergraduate days at the University of Oxford often took me along Dorothy Hodgkin Road on my way to labs, passing a plaque commemorating her work on the Chemistry building, and occasionally visiting Somerville College, where she spent her undergraduate and fellowship years. It always impressed me how easily she seemed to shrug off the gender and disability norms of mid-20th century society to excel not only in her field, but also in promoting science in general as a way to improve the world for all. 

As a disabled scientist myself, she reminds me that when academia seems so opposed to the flexible working practices vital for those with long-term health issues, others in similar situations do exist, and slowly but surely, initiatives such as the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship are helping to improve accessibility for disabled scientists to both enter and remain active in academia throughout our working lives.

Susanna is a third year PhD student in Tissue Repair and Regeneration. Find her on Twitter @SusannaERiley and LinkedIn @Susanna Riley.

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