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Book Review of Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life

by Georgina Ferry

Granta Books, London 1998

ISBN 1 86207 167 5

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) was the only woman from this country ever to win a Nobel Prize (in 1964), following in the footsteps of Marie Curie and her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie. She was the first woman since Florence Nightingale to receive the Order of Merit, our highest honor. She was only the fifth woman to be elected to the Royal Society, our Academy of Science; she was awarded four of the society's medals, including the Royal Medal, and is still the youngest woman elected FRS, at the age of 36.

Hodgkin took to chemistry as a child, with a surveyor's kit given to her by the Sudan Government Chemist, "Uncle Joseph," who was their neighbor in Khartoum, where her father was director of education and antiquities; Hodgkin herself was born in Cairo. Back home, aged 11, she practiced chemistry in the attic, growing crystals from solutions she heated with a Bunsen burner under the wooden rafters. She had a lot of responsibility from an early age, looking after three younger sisters while their parents were abroad. Together with her parents' disappointment in not having a son, and her mother's regret that she herself had not been allowed to go to university, these are familiar patterns in the lives of high-achieving, hardworking women.

Hodgkin went to Somerville College Oxford to study chemistry, then to Cambridge in 1932 for a Ph.D. in crystallography with J. D. ("Sage") Bernal, on Uncle Joseph's advice. She described her time with Bernal as "rich with new discoveries" as they probed the limits of the new techniques, applying them to compounds of biological importance. She was persuaded to return to Somerville as Science Fellow and Tutor before 2 years had gone by, but her collaboration with Bernal continued less formally for the rest of his working life.

Women were effectively "on sufferance" in Oxbridge, particularly in older sciences such as physics and chemistry, in which they were a small minority. There was more room for them in new, expanding sciences such as x-ray crystallography, particularly with the tiresome work required before the advent of the electronic computer and automatic methods. In 1944, only 3 years before her election to the Royal Society, she had to go to the head of her department in Oxford to ask for a university lectureship, to eke out her college stipend and her husband's salary as a lecturer. The Hodgkins married in 1937 and had three children within 7 years. She was juggling her work and family, with the help of their extended family, with Thomas away during the week, working in adult education in the north of England and later in Africa. Only in 1955 was she made a Reader at Oxford.

In 1960, the Royal Society appointed her to an endowed professorship. When Perutz and Kendrew shared the chemistry Nobel Prize in 1962, for their crystallographic triumphs, Perutz said he was embarrassed to receive the prize before Hodgkin, "whose great discoveries had been made with such fantastic skill and chemical insight and had preceded my own." Now in 1999 the roll of 60 women elected to the Royal Society since 1945 includes three crystallographers but no mainstream chemist.

Hodgkin wrote countless notes and letters and never threw anything away. She wrote to her parents in Egypt and the Sudan and wrote daily to her husband. She corresponded constantly with Bernal and with her scientific friends and collaborators "from Buffalo to Beijing, from Bucharest to Bangalore."

Georgina Ferry has used this remarkable archive, long discussions with Hodgkin's talented family, and interviews with crystallographers to write an excellent account of her life. This is impressive in its detail, including information new to those who knew Hodgkin well. The book gives a good account also of the development of the new science of chemical crystallography, much of it by young people. It contains a fine collection of photographs of Hodgkin, her extended family, and the extended families of scientists and peace campaigners she worked with.

Hodgkin delighted in the structural patterns in crystals, which reminded her of the mosaics she had seen on archaeological expeditions with her parents. She was blessed with an excellent memory, so important for a chemist: This contributed to her famous insight or intuition for discerning the molecular structure producing the pattern of spots of the x-ray diffraction picture. Building on Bernal's unselfish tutelage, Hodgkin's triumphs, the structures she solved, increased in complexity: from cholesterol and vitamin D to penicillin and vitamin B-12, the active principle in liver, cure for pernicious anemia. She received the chemistry Nobel Prize in 1964 for the structure of B-12 "and other molecules of biological significance." Some of the molecular structures, in penicillin and vitamin B-12 for example, were quite surprising. Her final triumph, after many years of toil and surprises, was the structure of the essential protein, insulin.

Because of her left-wing politics and McCarthyist scare-mongering, the U.S. government refused her a visa in 1953, just as Linus Pauling was refused a visa to go to Europe. She was president from 1976 of the Pugwash Conferences, in which scientists from East and West, both sides of the Iron Curtain, met to campaign against nuclear and chemical weapons, exchanging information they had gathered. Later she was involved in SANA (Scientists Against Nuclear Arms), which became SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility).

Margaret Thatcher was one of Hodgkin's less successful chemistry students at Somerville: She took a second-class degree and later changed to law. In 1970, when Hodgkin was chancellor of Bristol University (as Winston Churchill had been), she wrote to Thatcher to complain about cuts in university funding and grants for students. Thatcher replied, "Please do get in touch if you want to have a talk ... I do so value your advice and guidance." In 1983 she invited Hodgkin to lunch at Chequers, and in Hodgkin's papers were some Notes for Margaret: "Object: to rethink relations with the Soviet Union on the basis that friendship is possible and would be to everyone's advantage--trade--science--art--the lot."

Hodgkin sent Thatcher a petition in 1986 to ban chemical weapons. Thatcher replied that the Soviet Union would not cooperate in monitoring. Hodgkin answered that Pugwash people in Moscow and the two Germanies were moving toward agreements on verification: "I do hope you go to Moscow ... and find it enjoyable." When Gorbachev came to power, Thatcher met him in Britain and called him "a man I can do business with." She went to Moscow in 1987, and her visit included the Crystallography Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Later visitors to Downing Street from the institute found a portrait of Hodgkin on the wall behind Thatcher's desk.

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