Beautiful Science: Remembering Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910 -1994)

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910 – 1994), British biochemist, winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for advancing the technique of X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of biomolecules.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1964 was awarded to Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin who died this day in 1994, “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”

Few people outside of biochemistry has ever heard of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. Yet, we owe a debt to her for not one, but three pathbreaking discoveries that clarified the molecular structure of such important biomolecules as penicillin, vitamin b12 and insulin. While Dorothy Hodgkin’s career as a scientist was greatly influenced by her mother, it was her instincts for science, her intelligence and formidable tenacity that made a career in science almost inevitable and unstoppable.

Born in 1910 in Cairo, Egypt, Dorothy Hodgkin’s life as a researcher began when she received a chemistry book containing experiments with crystals as a child. After studying at Oxford University and despite graduating with good grades, as a woman, she had difficulty finding work. Finally, J.D. Bernal of Cambridge University, a pioneer of modern molecular biology, gave her a chance. After receiving her PhD from Cambridge University, Dorothy Hodgkin returned to Oxford University in 1934 where she remained for the rest of her career, achieving a host of brilliant discoveries that would change the field of molecular biology.

She made two significant discoveries, both using the then novel method of X-ray crystallography. When X-rays pass through a crystalline structure, the patterns formed can be captured as photographic images, which can then be used to determine the crystal’s structure. During the 1930s, this method was used to map increasingly large and complex molecules. From a mass of X-ray diffraction images, extensive calculations, and astute analysis, Hodgkin successfully unraveled the structure of penicillin in 1946 and, vitamin B12, the most complex of all vitamins, in 1956. These discoveries led her to win the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Dorothy Hodgkin went on to solve the molecular structure of insulin in 1969.

Structure of the Vitamin B12 Molecule

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin at the 1964 Nobel Prize Ceremony

Watch a video clip of the 1964 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, receiving her Nobel Prize medal and diploma during the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, on 10 December 1964.

Leave a Reply