Dorothy Hodgkin — a formidable and compassionate pioneer of X-ray crystallography Dorothy Hodgkin — a formidable and compassionate pioneer of X-ray crystallography – SOMETHING ABOUT SCIENCE

Dorothy Hodgkin — a formidable and compassionate pioneer of X-ray crystallography

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Today’s Google logo (or the Google Doodle) featured the structural model of penicillin, in tribute to the birthday of Dorothy Hodgkin.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (May 12, 1910 – July 29, 1994) was a renowned British chemist and one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography, a technique of solving the structure of a molecule using the X-ray diffractions of the crystallized molecule. (Aside: Many biological matters, such as proteins, hormones, DNA, etc., are too small to be seen under the regular, light microscope. X-ray crystallography involves extensive calculations to convert structural information in the diffraction patterns back to molecular shapes given by the electron densities of the atoms that make up the molecule, thus, the phrase “solving the structure.” At the time when computers and powerful equipment were either non-existent or extremely limited, it’s amazing how the scientists managed to solve the structures!)

Dorothy Hodgkin Photo credit: The Nobel Foundation

Dorothy Hodgkin
Photo credit: The Nobel Foundation

Hodgkin investigated many complex and medically important molecules, including cholesterol, insulin, and penicillin, but she is most remembered for her work on vitamin B12 in 1956. The structures of these biomolecules helped understand their chemical and biological reactions as well as to mass-produce the medicine.

A structural model of vitamin B12.  (Coordinates available from Protein Data Bank)

A structural model of vitamin B12. (Coordinates available from Protein Data Bank)

In 1964, Hodgkin received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”

Besides her research achievements, I admire Hodgkin for her contradicting, yet complementing, characters: formidable and compassionate.

Many female academics still feel discriminated and dominated by male contemporaries, but it was even more so when Hodgkin attended school and when she started her own laboratory. She faced challenges, such as her male colleague taking the credit for her breakthrough and and her experimental observations blatantly opposed. She also faced an internal battle; Hodgkin was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at the age 24, and the condition eventually crippled her limbs, snarling her hands. Even then, she refused to let the pain and difficulty show or slow her down. Despite her challenges, she continued her research, saying, “I was captured for life by chemistry and by crystals.” Her work on the insulin structure, for example, spanned 30 years.

Hodgkin also possessed a gentle side. She was a mother to her three children, as well as to her students who worked in her laboratory, her friends calling her the “Mother Cat.” She also strived to close the political gaps that separated people from different nations after the wars (World War II and the Cold War), working for peace organizations.

This year is the International Year of Crystallography, having recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of the field. See achievements of other female scientists in the field highlighted in the article by Georgina Ferry, who has also written a biography of Dorothy Hodgkin.

Lynn Kimlicka

I am a scientist-turned writer and editor, who loves to read and write (more than doing experiments). I have a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology, with a specialization in structural biology. My interests range widely, from life sciences to pop culture and arts to music. I am bilingual in English and Japanese.

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