Social Philosophy

Diamonds to DNA: the women who revealed the hidden structures of nature

Georgina Ferry
15th March 2018, 7:00pm

Historically women have been significantly under-represented among the ranks of scientists, a situation that is only gradually beginning to change. Despite this, during the 20th century three women made pioneering discoveries in the new field of X-ray crystallography which today is critical both to fundamental research in biology and to drug discovery. How were these women, two of them wives and mothers, able to succeed in science at a time when few women had professional careers of any kind? 

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) proved that the hydrocarbon benzene took the form of a flat ring and later worked on the synthesis of diamonds. She was one of the first two women admitted to the Royal Society. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994; above) was one of the first to attempt X-ray analysis of proteins and won the Nobel prize for discovering the structures of penicillin and vitamin B12. She remains the only British woman scientist to be so honoured. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) made studies of DNA that were critical to the discovery of its structure and also revealed the structural composition of plant viruses.


About the Speaker

Georgina Ferry will look to the circumstances of these three women, and the nature of their science, to account for their exceptional success. Ferry is Hodgkin’s biographer and has written and spoken extensively on women in science. She is a science writer and broadcaster, and author of seven books on 20th century science. She has previously worked for New Scientist and BBC Radio 4, and was editor of Oxford University’s magazine Oxford Today from 2000-2007. Her latest book A Better World is Possible: The Gatsby Charitable Foundation and Social Progress is due to be published by Profile Books in September 2017. 



Menu for Supper

Steamed salmon with a hollandaise sauce with new potatoes and vegetables

Stuffed peppers with tomato sauce (v)

New York cheese cake with raspberry coulis

Fresh fruit salad

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