Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin: X-ray crystallography pioneer

Determining the atomic structure of materials allows us to understand why they carry certain physical properties. This is particularly useful in the case of organic matter, as this allows us to understand the workings of the body and develop medicines and other treatments. One of the leading figures in mapping the structure of biological matter was Dr. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, a British biochemist who used X-ray crystallography to determine the three-dimensional structure of highly complex organic molecules, including penicillin and Vitamin B12. These hugely important discoveries merited her a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. She later made an even bigger discovery, mapping out the structure of insulin, a project that took over 30 years. DiscovHER looks back on the life of this extraordinarily talented chemist.

Born in Egypt in 1910 to British parents, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin had a passion for chemistry since childhood. At the age of 15, her mother gave her a book about X-ray crystallography pioneer W.H. Bragg, which introduced Dorothy to the idea that scientists could use X-rays to map out atoms and molecules. This became her chief passion, and made up the subject of her studies at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Once installed in her Oxford laboratory in 1934, Hodgkin began the complicated mission of deciphering the structure of several highly complex organic molecules. She used X-ray crystallography, a method which beams X-rays into crystallized molecules and allows scientists to work out their structure by analyzing the pattern formed by the refracted rays. The procedure was laborious and complicated, and in an era without computers, very time consuming. So time consuming, that in fact, it was not until 1946 that Hodgkin was able to determine the structure of penicillin, and not until 1956 in the case of Vitamin B12, which has the most complex structure of all the vitamins.

These discoveries were colossal, and Hodgkin was duly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. To date, she is the only British woman to win a Nobel in the sciences, and only one of four women ever to win the prestigious award in Chemistry.

Unfortunately, the press of the day did not see it that way: the Daily Mail announced the news under the headline “Oxford housewife wins Nobel”. However, Hodgkin was used to this type of sexism and did not let this distract her from her work. In 1969, she finally managed to crack the structure of insulin, which she had started working on 35 years earlier. In the process, she and her team greatly improved X-ray crystallography techniques, a necessary step in understanding the complexity of the insulin molecule. Thanks to her work, scientists were subsequently able to develop treatments to control diabetes.

28 other Nobel Prizes have featured discoveries related to X-ray crystallography. Can you name any? Let us know @4womeninscience.

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