Today, we use Byzantine patterns of X-ray dots to
figure out 3-dimensional structures. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Dorothy Crowfoot was born in
Egypt in 1910. Her parents were English
archaeologists. As WW-I began, they packed her off
to England. During a choppy education there, she
ran across a textbook that told her how to grow
copper sulfate crystals.
When ten-year-old Dorothy decided to try it,
science was destined to change. She resolved to
understand this magical lifelike process. Then a
geologist friend gave her a box of reagents and
minerals. He told her, "Buy a proper book on
analytical chemistry!" She did. She also built a
chemistry lab in her attic and set her sights on
the male bastion of Oxford University.
Just before college she went to Jerusalem to help
her parents excavate Byzantine churches. Sharon
McGrane tells how Dorothy reconstructed mosaic
patterns from fragments on the floors. It took a
trick of seeing for which she had a special gift --
but it was a gift that would serve chemistry, not
After Oxford she worked in X-ray crystallography at
Cambridge. Then two things happened on the same day
in 1934. First: the name Crowfoot took on a
terrible irony. She found she had crippling
rheumatoid arthritis. Down through a very active
life she's worked in pain, with hands and feet
Only hours after she found that out, people in her
lab made the first X-ray photo of a protein
crystal. And she realized she could go from a
pointillist X-ray pattern -- a broken Byzantine
mosaic -- to the 3-D structure of a complex organic
molecule. That day, she said, began in pain and
ended in a vision.
She began teaching at Oxford that fall. Three years
later she married a socialist writer, Thomas
Hodgkin. They lived a joyful life of odd disorder,
verve, and shared radical causes.
By 1946 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin had learned the
molecular structure of penicillin. That, says
McGrane, was like drawing plans for a jungle gym
when you've seen only its shadow on the ground. Her
life was, in fact, one eerie feat of spatial
visualization after another.
By 1951 she'd figured out the mysterious B12
molecule and for that was given the 1964 Nobel
Prize in chemistry. A headline in the
Times mawkishly cried out: "Nobel
Prize for British Wife," and she kept on working.
In 1969 she showed how 777 atoms made up the
incredibly complex insulin molecule.
Margaret Thatcher studied chemistry at Oxford under
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. As prime minister,
Thatcher kept up their friendship -- the
conservative and the ultra-liberal. But then
qualities that would draw two of the smartest
people in England together for tea -- had to be
ones that transcended mere politics.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
McGrane, S.B., Nobel Prize Women in
Science. New York: A Birch Lane Press Book,
Chapter 10, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, May 12, 1910 --
Physical Chemist, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1964.
There is so much more to tell about DCH. She was
only the fourth woman ever to win a Nobel Prize,
but it was the fifth Nobel Prize to a woman, since
Madam Curie had won two. She was the first English
woman to win the prize. But, before that, at the
age of only 36, she became only the third woman to
be made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Linus Pauling tried to bring her to America in
1953, but the State Department wouldn't let her in.
That was because both her husband and her mentor at
Cambridge (John Desmond Bernal) were members of the
communist party. She was apolitical but strongly
sympathetic to a number of socialist causes -- any
one of which incurred the wrath of Western
governments during the 1950s. Her enduring
friendship with Thatcher is all the more remarkable
for that. At this writing (June 1994) DCH is, to
the best of my knowledge, still active.
Many websites give more information, and pictures
of DCH. See, e.g.:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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