Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 933:
DOROTHY CROWFOOT HODGKIN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 933.

Today, we use Byzantine patterns of X-ray dots to figure out 3-dimensional structures. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Dorothy Crowfoot was born in Egypt in 1910. Her parents were English archaeologists. As WW-I began, they packed her off to England. During a choppy education there, she ran across a textbook that told her how to grow copper sulfate crystals.

When ten-year-old Dorothy decided to try it, science was destined to change. She resolved to understand this magical lifelike process. Then a geologist friend gave her a box of reagents and minerals. He told her, "Buy a proper book on analytical chemistry!" She did. She also built a chemistry lab in her attic and set her sights on the male bastion of Oxford University.

Just before college she went to Jerusalem to help her parents excavate Byzantine churches. Sharon McGrane tells how Dorothy reconstructed mosaic patterns from fragments on the floors. It took a trick of seeing for which she had a special gift -- but it was a gift that would serve chemistry, not archaeology.

After Oxford she worked in X-ray crystallography at Cambridge. Then two things happened on the same day in 1934. First: the name Crowfoot took on a terrible irony. She found she had crippling rheumatoid arthritis. Down through a very active life she's worked in pain, with hands and feet terribly twisted.

Only hours after she found that out, people in her lab made the first X-ray photo of a protein crystal. And she realized she could go from a pointillist X-ray pattern -- a broken Byzantine mosaic -- to the 3-D structure of a complex organic molecule. That day, she said, began in pain and ended in a vision.

She began teaching at Oxford that fall. Three years later she married a socialist writer, Thomas Hodgkin. They lived a joyful life of odd disorder, verve, and shared radical causes.

By 1946 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin had learned the molecular structure of penicillin. That, says McGrane, was like drawing plans for a jungle gym when you've seen only its shadow on the ground. Her life was, in fact, one eerie feat of spatial visualization after another.

By 1951 she'd figured out the mysterious B12 molecule and for that was given the 1964 Nobel Prize in chemistry. A headline in the Times mawkishly cried out: "Nobel Prize for British Wife," and she kept on working. In 1969 she showed how 777 atoms made up the incredibly complex insulin molecule.

Margaret Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford under Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. As prime minister, Thatcher kept up their friendship -- the conservative and the ultra-liberal. But then qualities that would draw two of the smartest people in England together for tea -- had to be ones that transcended mere politics.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


McGrane, S.B., Nobel Prize Women in Science. New York: A Birch Lane Press Book, Chapter 10, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, May 12, 1910 -- Physical Chemist, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1964.

There is so much more to tell about DCH. She was only the fourth woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, but it was the fifth Nobel Prize to a woman, since Madam Curie had won two. She was the first English woman to win the prize. But, before that, at the age of only 36, she became only the third woman to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Linus Pauling tried to bring her to America in 1953, but the State Department wouldn't let her in. That was because both her husband and her mentor at Cambridge (John Desmond Bernal) were members of the communist party. She was apolitical but strongly sympathetic to a number of socialist causes -- any one of which incurred the wrath of Western governments during the 1950s. Her enduring friendship with Thatcher is all the more remarkable for that. At this writing (June 1994) DCH is, to the best of my knowledge, still active.

Many websites give more information, and pictures of DCH. See, e.g.:

http://curie.che.virginia.edu/scientist/hodgkin.html

http://www.lmcp.jussieu.fr/cww-top/his.hodgkin2.html

http://dbhs.wvusd.k12.ca.us/Gallery/Gallery7.html


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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