“Oxford Housewife Wins Nobel Prize”, “Nobel Prize for British Wife”… This is how the tabloids in the United Kingdom announced the awarding of the prestigious prize from the Swedish Academy to Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964. She was the first woman from their country to win a Nobel Prize for science, and she achieved it due to her pioneering techniques to visualise biomolecules using X-rays. Thanks to her, we finally understood the 3D structure of penicillin, the first antibiotic, which allowed us to manufacture new and more efficient drug derivatives. The award recognised her extraordinary scientific skills, but to her surprise she was often asked by interviewers how she managed to combine her work with “a very full domestic life.”
On the contrary, in the face of those gender stereotypes, she had been educated since childhood to believe that a full life revolved around her intellectual and personal development. She was born in Cairo, where her father worked for the Ministry of Education, and she grew up travelling between Egypt, England and Sudan, with a childhood very marked by the First World War. As a young girl she was already fascinated by minerals and geometric shapes of crystalline structures. She showed very early interest in the field of research that led her to the Nobel Prize: “I was captured for life by chemistry and by crystals,” according to Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin herself (May 12, 1910 – July 20, 1994).
At the age of just 12, while on a trip to Sudan to visit her parents and learn about her father’s archaeological work, she was intrigued by a mineral that was very black and bright, and she asked a scientist friend of the family, A.F. Joseph, about it. What she received was not an answer, but a mineral analysis kit. And when she turned 16, her mother gave her another gift that influenced her scientific career: a book by Henry Bragg in which he explained how to use X-rays to analyse the structures of mineral crystals.
This technique, called X-ray crystallography, basically consists of making an X-ray image of a mineral: when the electromagnetic waves pass through the material, the electrons of its atoms deflect the X-rays in a way that depends on the internal structure of the crystals. A characteristic pattern of each mineral appears in each image, and by performing a detailed mathematical analysis of these patterns its crystalline structure can be deduced. This indirect way of seeing atoms was the one that Hodgkin perfected and took to another level, applying it to molecules of great biological importance.
‘X-rays’ of vital molecules
First, she obtained a chemistry degree at Oxford and then did her PhD at Cambridge, where she began to investigate those biomolecules inspired by John Desmond Bernal, who became her mentor, her lover and also had a great influence on her political thinking . Dorothy Hodgkin returned to Oxford in 1934, where she spent her entire scientific career. In 1945 the first fruits of her work were realised. Her team of researchers was able to determine the structure of penicillin, showing that (contrary to the scientific belief of the time) its molecule contains a β-lactam ring, which is a fundamental component of several families of antibiotics.
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Hodgkin thus culminated the scientific adventure initiated by Alexander Fleming in 1928, with his accidental discovery of penicillin. Finally knowing its three-dimensional molecular structure allowed researchers to optimise the manufacture of the first antibiotic and to improve on it, and it also promoted the development of new drugs. She was also the first person to see biomolecules as essential as vitamin B-12 (1956) and insulin (1969).
The structure of penicillin and that entire line of research, developed over decades, was recognised in 1964 with the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which until then had only been received by two women: Marie Curie and her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie. Dorothy Hodgkin was already a role model at the time at the University of Oxford, where she had been Margaret Thatcher’s tutor. Her influence was very strong on the conservative politician, so much so that when she ended up becoming Prime Minister of the UK, she hung a picture of Hodgkin in her office at 10 Downing Street.
Chemistry united two lives that in the political world could not have been further apart. Hodgkin, an internationally renowned scientist, was banned from entering the US because of her proximity to the Communist Party and her ties to Chinese scientists. Very concerned about the threat of nuclear war, she was a prominent pacifist and came to preside over the scientific organisation for disarmament that emerged from the manifesto of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. For this work, Hodgkin received the Order of Lenin (the Soviet equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize) in 1987, granted by Mikhail Gorbachev.