Dorothy Hodgkin, crystallographer, born on this day (Girl Geek of the Week #1)

In 1964, Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her pioneering work in the field of X-ray crystallography. Thanks to her contributions to science, we know the structures of many important molecules, not least penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin.

Dorothy Hodgkin was born on the 12th May 1910 in Cairo, Egypt to archaeologist parents. Due to the outbreak of WW1, she was raised and educated by relatives in the UK, while her parents remained abroad. At 18, she enrolled at Somerville College, University of Oxford, to study chemistry. She carried on her interest in chemistry after graduation, pursuing a PhD in X-ray crystallography (a technique also greatly advanced by one of my personal heroes, Rosalind Franklin) with John Desmond Bernal at the University of Cambridge.

Hodgkin went on to work at the University of Oxford as a researcher, and pioneered the use of x-ray crystallography for the identification of 3D biomolecular structures. She confirmed the structure of penicillin, previously theorised by Chain and Abraham, and discovered the structure of vitamin B12, for which she won the Nobel Prize in 1964.

Even after winning this most prestigious of scientific awards, Hodgkin had more to offer society. She had been investigating insulin since the mid 1930s, after being given a sample by Robert Robinson. Insulin was known even then to be an important substance and as such she was determined to understand it better. At the time, the technique of X-ray crystallography was under-developed for use with such a complex structure and it took 35 years for Hodgkin and her team to finally crack the structure. She went on to give talks about insulin around the world- not just about her contributions to the discovery of its structure, but about its importance in the human body, and with respect to diabetes. Arguably the saga of Hodgkin and insulin is her greatest contribution to both the field of X-ray crystallography, and science on a wider scale.

“InsulinHexamer” The original uploader was Takometer at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Image: “Dorothy Hodgkin Nobel” by Unknown –


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