Hodgkin, Dorothy Crowfoot (1910-1994) English Chemist, X-ray Crystallographer (Scientist)

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is considered the founder of protein crystallography for her indefatigable work mapping the molecular structure of important compounds such as penicillin. She won the 1964 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her structural analysis of vitamin B12, but the crowning achievement of her long career was her deduction of the structure of insulin, which she commenced in the 1930s and completed in the late 1960s.

Dorothy C. Hodgkin pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography, which she used to understand the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin.

Dorothy C. Hodgkin pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography, which she used to understand the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin.

Hodgkin was born on May 12, 1910, in Cairo, Egypt, where her father, John Crowfoot, worked as an archaeologist for the British Ministry of Education. Her mother, Grace, was an artist and an expert in Coptic textiles. Hodgkin grew up separated from her parents by World War I, as she remained in the safe haven of England while her mother accompanied her father to his new post in Sudan as the director of the ministries of education and antiquities. For her 16th birthday, her mother gave her a book on X-ray crystallography by its pioneer, William Henry Bragg, a gift that helped determine her future.

In 1928, Hodgkin entered Somerville, the women’s college of Oxford University, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1932. She proceeded to Cambridge University, where she conducted postgraduate research under J. D. Bernal, who was working with X-ray crystallography. Hodgkin and Bernal applied X-ray crystallography first on pepsin, which they fully analyzed by 1934. That year, Hodgkin began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that afflicted her for the rest of her career.

Also in 1934, Hodgkin returned to Somerville as a researcher and teacher with her own lab space, though it was submerged in the basement of the Oxford Museum. She pursued her doctorate, writing her dissertation on her X-ray crystallography study of cholesterol, which she completed in 1937 to earn her Ph.D. On December 16 of that year, she married African studies specialist Thomas L. Hodgkin. Together the couple had three children, raised by family and nannies while their father taught in the north of England and their mother worked at Oxford. He finally joined her on the Oxford faculty in 1945.

Hodgkin spent the years during World War II studying penicillin, one of the first antibiotics, which ernst boris chain had brought to her for analysis. From 1942 through 1946, Hodgkin and her graduate student, Barbara Rogers-Low, deciphered penicillin’s molecular structure. In honor of this significant achievement, the Royal Society inducted Hodgkin as a fellow, only the third woman so honored by 1947. The next year, she commenced analysis of vitamin B12, an even more complex molecule necessary to prevent pernicious anemia in humans. Hodgkin and her team worked for six years collecting data; as they were preparing to interpret this data, Hodgkin met Kenneth Trueblood of the University of California at Los Angeles, where he had programmed a computer to calculate crystallo-graphic readings. Trueblood and Hodgkin collaborated cross-continentally to arrive at the molecular structure of vitamin B12 in 1956. A year later, Oxford finally appointed Hodgkin as a reader (the equivalent of a full professorship in the United States), and in 1958, they finally equipped her with adequate laboratory facilities.

In 1964, Hodgkin became the first British woman to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences. The next year, she received Britain’s Order of Merit, the second woman so honored, after Florence Nightingale. Hodgkin spent the remainder of the 1960s deciphering the 777 atoms of insulin by analyzing 70,000 X-ray spots, and in 1969, she announced her results (which were refined in 1988 with the help of advanced computers). Hodgkin retired in 1977. She suffered a stroke and died on July 30, 1994.

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