Dorothy Hodgkin, the Mistress of Molecular Modelling

By Jaime Seltzer

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was born in Cairo, Egypt in May of 1910; both of her parents had an interest in archaeology and antiquities, and so spent a great deal of time away from their native England. John Winter Crowfoot was the Director of Education and Antiquities in the Sudan, and Grace Mary Crowfoot became an expert in ancient textiles and weaving techniques, as well as an amateur student of botany. Dorothy had a Victorian dream of an early childhood, running around archeological digs and copying ancient mosaics and drawing flowers with her mother. As an adult, she thought seriously about becoming an archaeologist. But what a loss to biology that would have been!

On returning to England, Dorothy’s parents sent her to a young teacher who did science labs with her students, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic – a sort of pre-Montessori School for children of parents who might not be wealthy enough to hire a private governess but had a few shillings to rub together and prioritized their children’s education. In chemistry class, Dorothy watched as chemicals that the class had mixed together began to crystallize. She immediately ran home to repeat the experiments up in the attic, which soon became her makeshift laboratory. “From then on,” she said, “I was captured for life by chemistry and crystals.”

She won the Nobel Prize for determining the structure of B-12, but her lifetime triumph was probably the structure of insulin, which was so devilishly complicated that it took her thirty-four years to really nail it down!

She attended Oxford and Somerville College from 1928 to 1932, where Magarey Fry, a social reformer and the President of the college, took Dorothy under her wing. Although Dorothy began by combining her two loves and using analytical chemistry to examine archeological finds, Dorothy eventually switched her focus to x-ray crystallography, just as Rosalind Franklin had; and, just as Franklin had, she turned from the crystallography of inorganic substances to messy, organic molecules that were less rigid and less regular. She worked on and helped determine the structure of the tobacco mosaic virus, just as Franklin did. In fact, Hodgkin and Franklin conversed about their work together on several occasions!

At Cambridge with J.D. Bernal, financed by her aunt and by a small scholarship from Somerville, Hodgkin and Bernal were the first to successfully apply x-ray diffraction techniques to organic compounds. Over the course of her career, Dorothy was able to accurately describe the structures of cholesterol, lactoglobulin, ferritin, penicillin, and Vitamin B-12. She won the Nobel Prize for determining the structure of B-12, but her lifetime triumph was probably the structure of insulin, which was so devilishly complicated that it took her thirty-four years to really nail it down! Despite her scientific prowess, she was forbidden from entering the United States because of her communist views.

By this time she had her own lab at Oxford, which her students said was one of the most productive yet peaceful places they had ever worked. Hodgkin kept up a network of colleagues, helpers, scientific partners and friends throughout her scientific career, many of them young students struggling in the field. Dorothy remembered how invaluable her own mentor had been to her development as a scientist, and helped these students through advice and research opportunities.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin and her card in the Women in Science game.

Dorothy is known for two major accomplishments apart from the realm of chemistry. The first is her archeological work. When she was still a very young woman, she went on a dig to the ancient city of Jerash, where she copied the mosaic work there to-scale, making each mosaic tile into a 1-mm by 1-mm square on her page. She sent the completed work to Yale, where it is still part of the official record of the dig.

The second is her work on peace and diplomatic causes. She won the Lenin Peace Prize in the 1980s in part for her active role on the World Peace Council, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the founders of which were co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded the Order of Merit for her scientific and social contributions, and remains the only British woman to have ever won a Nobel in the sciences.

Crowfoot Hodgkin, D. (Narrator). Web of Stories. Dorothy Hodgkin – Scientist [Online video]. Biochemical Society. Retrieved October 4, 2015, from
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin – Biographical. (1972). In Nobel Lectures. Chemistry 1963—1970. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company. Retrieved from
Ferry, G. (2014). Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.
Ferry, G. (2014). Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. In Trowelblazers. Retrieved October 4, 2015 from
Maisel, M. and Smart, L. (n.d.) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, OM. In The San Diego Supercomputing Center Presents: Women In Science, A Selection of 16 Significant Contributors. Retrieved from

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