“A great advantage of X-ray analysis as a method of chemical structure analysis is its power to show some totally unexpected and surprising structure with, at the same time, complete certainty.”
— Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, X Ray Analysis of Complicated Molecules, Dec. 11, 1964
Dorothy Crowfoot was born on May 12th, 1910 in Cairo, Egypt. Her father, John Crowfoot, was an educator and archaeologist.
After retiring from his positions as Director of Education and Director of Antiquities in Sudan, Crowfoot would become the Director of Archaeology at the British School in Jerusalem, Israel.
Her mother, Grace Mary Hood Crowfoot was not only an accomplished botanist, but also an expert on early textile weaving practices.
Dorothy Crowfoot spent most of her childhood in Norfolk, England. Her parents would visit throughout the year, and were supportive of her love for the sciences. F.M. Brewer, a colleague of Crowfoot’s parents is credited as sparking her love for chemistry. Brewer himself was a distinguished inorganic chemist, with a special interest in germanium.
From 1921 – 1928, Crowfoot would attend the Sir John Leman School Beccles day school. During her studies, she and one other girl were able to study chemistry with male students. When she completed her education, she had decided to study chemistry and potentially biochemistry.
After completing her primary education, Crowfoot would go on to attend Oxford at Sommerville from 1928 – 1932. Sommerville is one of two colleges established by Oxford that allowed womxn to obtain a secondary eduation. In 1920, president Emily Penrose legitimized Sommerville by establishing womens’ presence in all degree programs as well as membership in university wide faculties, faculty boards, and other regonized community groups. Sommerville today is still a fully functioning part of Oxford and boasts an impressive alumni roster, including public figures such as Indira Ghandi and Margaret Thatcher.
After completing her bachelors’ studies, Crowfoot would move on to earn her doctorates degree from Cambridge. It’s here that she studied under the renowned J.D. Bernal – an Irish researcher and x-ray crystallographer. Bernal is accredited as a huge influence on Crowfoot’s life.
Crowfoot learned about and performed x-ray crystallography. Until now, x-ray crystallography was used to examine inorganic chemicals. Crowfoot, with Bernals’ mentorship, would be the first to map a biological component with this technique. The molecule in question? Pepsin – the enzymes humans use to digest proteins.
In 1933, Crowfoot would be offered a position as a research fellow at Sommerville. The next year she moved back to Oxford; in a matter of two years or so she would be awarded the title of, “First Fellow and Tutor of Chemistry”. She would hold this position until 1977 – a span of approximately 40 years in education.
1934 would be the year that Crowfoot would begin her insulin research. A necessary component of managing blood sugar, insulin still remains a crucial treatment for patients with diabetes. Mentor Sir Robert Robinson provided her with a crystallized version of insulin, and she went from there.
In 1937 Crowfoot would meet Thomas Hodgkin, a historian that specialized in the history and politics of African and Arabian countries. Later in life, he would become the director of the Institute of African Studies in Ghana.
Colleague Ernst Chain would turn Crowfoot Hodgkins’ attention to penicillin in 1940. Chain, an accomplished researcher then at the time of the William Dunn School of Pathology, had just obtained successful trials involving animal use of penicillin. In 1946, Crowfoot Hodgkin would successfully depict the true structure of penicillin, effectively establishing herself in science history. This work would not be published until 1949.
1945 would be a good year for Crowfoot Hodgkin as she published the first determined structure of cholesteryl iodide, a steroid. Much of her university research was centered around steroids.
Crowfoot Hodgkin was elected into the Royal Society in 1947.
In 1948, Crowfoot Hodgkin would begin her investigation into Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 was first discovered and coined by Karl Folker of Merck research. Hodgkins’ research and its impact would culminate in the 1964 Nobel prize in chemistry.
Vitamin B12 is a wonderfully curious molecule belonging to the overarching Vitamin B group. Vitamins are defined as organic molecules that the human body cannot make. Becuse of this, we must gain them from our diet.
In 1926, researchers found that eating liver daily would reduce “pernicious anemia”, often seen as shortness of breath and fatigue. In these times, researchers would look for animals with equivalent symptoms and use them to test which diets and nutrients were needed. However in this case, Folker couldn’t find any animal counterparts. Human trials began with volunteer students from Columbia. It wasn’t until Folker stumbled over the work of microbiologist Mary Shorb, who observed that a certain strain of bacterium responded positively to the trials. She was quickly introduced to Merck to speed the process up.
In 1947, Folker and his team would successfuly isolate Vitamin B12, or cobalamin. Patients experiencing pernicious anemia found themselves cured after being treated with this.
The vitamin B12 molecule is large in respect to other vitamins, and contains cobalt. This piqued Hodgkins’ interest and she soon started performing x-rays.
By the end of the 1950’s, Hodgkin had solved the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. You can read one of her papers on insulin here.
She was one of the few that traveled to Cambridge in 1953 to see Francis Crick and James Watson’s model of the DNA double helix. You can read more about the two gentleman and the person who defined their discovery on Rosalind Franklins’ profile.
In 1960, Crowfoot Hodgkin would be named the Royal Society’s Wolfson Research Professor at Oxford. She would hold this position alongside her Sommerville fellowship until her retirement in 1977.
From 1976 to 1988 she would serve as the chair of the Pugwash Council, a body concerned with ridding the world of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
Her last years were spend traveling, advocating for nuclear disarmament, and volunteering with peace organizations. Since her early days, Crowfoot Hodgkin had been aware of social inequalities. It’s true that her old mentor J.D. Bernal was a part of the communist party, as well as her husband Thomas Hodgkin. Because of this she was banned from traveling to the USA in 1953.
In 1961, Thomas was named advisor to Kwameh Nkrumah, and spent most of his time there. It was in Ghana that Dorothy learned of her Nobel nomination.
Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin died on July 29, 1994 of a stroke in Ilminton, England. Posthumous recognition includes research fellowships and honorary stamps. She was featured in 2012 on BBC 4 for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. Many places are named after her, including the science wing at her old primary school, Sir John Leman School.
She is the only British woman to have earned a Nobel Prize in the sciences.
Watch more of Dorothy Hodgkin https://www.webofstories.com/play/dorothy.hodgkin/31
https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1945/summary/ — Ernst Chain.
Vitamin B group and Vitamin B12:
Chemistry at Oxford: a history: Williams, Chapman, Rowlinson.
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