The vision of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin

Crystallography sounds as if it could be among services on offer at a fortune-teller’s shop, alongside tarot cards and palm readings.

One of the soothsayer’s most revered props is the crystal ball, which is why another name for the craft is crystal gazer. In that, it would seem, there is a connection between the oracle and the practitioner of crystallography.

According to the University of Cambridge, the process of crystallography “begins by growing a crystal of the protein of interest that contains millions of copies of that protein arranged in an ordered and regularly repeating fashion”.

An X-ray beam is directed through these crystals and is diffracted in ways that can be interpreted and analysed and “used to create a model of the protein’s structure”. “These structures give scientists essential insights into human health and disease.”   

The International Union of Crystallography, a British-based organisation formed to promulgate discoveries and advances in the field, lists 29 Nobel Prizes given to scientists resulting from the use X-ray crystallography in chemistry, physics and medicine.

One of those laureates is Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who was awarded the 1964 Prize in Chemistry for solving the atomic structure of molecules such as penicillin and insulin; she remains the only British woman to win a Nobel Prize in science.

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Dorothy Mary Crowfoot was born in Cairo, Egypt, on 12 May 1910. The family lived there during the winter and returned to England each year to avoid Egypt’s summer heat.

From the age of four she was left in England with her grandparents while her parents remained in Egypt and later Sudan.

The website of Britain’s Royal Society says her early education in England was rigorous and included a strong science component.

“In chemistry,” it says, “Dorothy and her classmates made solutions of alum and copper sulphate from which, over time, fascinating crystals emerged. Those simple experiments sowed a seed in Dorothy: ‘I was captured for life by chemistry and by crystals.’ ” 

An article in the BBC’s Science Focus magazine describes how, in 1928, she began a degree in chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford.

It says her mother had given her a book in which she learnt about the technique of X-ray crystallography. “‘We can now see the individual atoms and molecules’, wrote the author, Sir William Bragg, himself a Nobel Prize winner, and Dorothy immediately decided that was what she wanted to do.”

At Cambridge she studied for her PhD under John Desmond Bernal, who had been one of Bragg’s research students.

Science Focus explains that Bernal was one of the first to use X-ray crystallography “on the complex molecules that make up the living body”.

“Working together, they were able to publish diffraction patterns from the digestive enzyme pepsin, a protein, one of the molecules that we now know is encoded by the DNA sequence in our genes, and which drive all the important processes of life,” it says.

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Hodgkin’s model of penicillin. Credit: Wikipedia / CC BY-SA

“Bernal and Crowfoot’s paper in the journal Nature, published in 1934, established for the first time that proteins had some kind of regular structure that might one day be deciphered.”

In 1937, Crowfoot married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, a noted academic who had written books on African politics and history and lectured at Balliol College in Oxford. They had three children. Nevertheless, she continued to publish as Dorothy Crowfoot until 1949, when she was persuaded to use her married name.

In 1938, age 28, an infection triggered Hodgkin’s first attack of rheumatoid arthritis, which afflicted her for the remainder of her life.

World War II led Hodgkin to her next triumph. In 1941, the Royal Society says, she “was aware of the urgent and secret wartime effort to refine the use of antibiotics by determining the structure of penicillin. She wrote of being ‘irresistibly drawn to inject myself into the situation’ and proceeded to solve the structure in 1945 – coinciding with the end of the war.

“The structure of vitamin B12 and organisational insights into various proteins followed. Then, in 1969, when Dorothy was in her late 50s, she finally got the measure of insulin.”

Hodgkin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947. She received the Royal Medal in 1956, and the Order of Merit in 1965.

Despite her worsening arthritis, the Royal Society says, she “kept up a demanding global schedule for the rest of her life”, using a wheelchair when walking became too slow and painful.

Hodgkin retired from public life in 1988 and died in 1994.

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