We welcomed Dame Dorothy Hodgkin with open arms in 1981, the Lit & Phil’s bicentenary, and made her an Honorary Member. The enterprising nature of her work earned her the Dalton Medal and, that year, she gave the Dalton Lecture.
Entitled ‘Moments of Discovery’, her talk touched on the many important, new scientific ideas she had put forward during her life. In particular, the development of x-ray crystallography. Dame Dorothy related these to John Dalton’s work on atoms and the principles behind his own ground-breaking work on molecular structures. The Lit & Phil’s Manchester Memoirs of that year contain her lecture and make for a fascinating read.
Dame Dorothy was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1910, to academic parents who introduced her to many subjects from an early age, ranging from archaeology to botany. Her father’s job led to her subsequently moving to Sudan before returning to the UK at age 10. At this point, she was already keen on scientific subjects.
Her journey into studying crystallography began when she enrolled at Somerville College in 1928 to study chemistry. She graduated with a first-class honours degree in 1932 before furthering her studies to PhD level at Cambridge. Under the supervision of John Desmond Bernal, the famous crystallographer, she completed her course before returning to Oxford. All of this she did while suffering from the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis.
Over the next three decades, Dame Dorothy devoted herself to uncovering the molecular structure of the hormone insulin. She was also the first person to determine the structure of a complex organic molecule (cholesterol) by X-ray crystallography. Later, she did the same for both Penicillin and Vitamin B12, the latter of which was awarded the Nobel prize for science in 1964. She remains the first and only British woman, for now, to have been awarded this prize.
Dame Dorothy Hodgkin was a devoted mother of three while also becoming severely handicapped with rheumatoid arthritis later in life. Despite this, she was undeterred in her desire to further and promote scientific education and discovery
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947, she was the second woman in British history to be awarded the Order of Merit in 1965 (second to Florence Nightingale in 1907). Dame Dorothy also served as Chancellor of the University of Bristol from 1970 to 1988.
Photograph of Dorothy Hodgkin by Godfrey Argent – National Portrait Gallery, London