Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
Death in 1994 of chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who used x-ray crystallography to identify the structure of insulin, penicillin, and vitamin B12. She received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964, making her the third woman, following Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie, to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry.
In the late 1930s Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910–1994) became a leading practitioner of the use of X-ray crystallography in determining the three-dimensional structure of complex organic molecules. About the same time as Hodgkin was beginning her work in X-ray crystallography, chemists were also examining spectra from spectroscopes descended from the mid-19th-century invention of Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff, not just to analyze for elemental content, but to gain structural information about molecules.
Hodgkin was born in Cairo, Egypt, to English parents, John and Grace Crowfoot. Although her formal schooling took place in England, she spent a significant part of her youth in the Middle East and North Africa, where her father was a school inspector. When she was 15, her mother gave her Sir William Henry Bragg’s Concerning the Nature of Things (1925), which contained intriguing discussions of how scientists could use X-rays to “see” atoms and molecules.
At Somerville College, Oxford, she studied physics and chemistry and chose to do her fourth-year research project on X-ray crystallography. She had to crystallize the substance under study, shoot X-rays at the crystal, and then study the way the X-rays were diffracted off the planes of the crystal’s structure. After graduation she studied at Cambridge with John Desmond Bernal. In 1937 she received her Ph.D. from Cambridge.
Hodgkin’s most significant scientific contributions were the determination of the structures of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12. In 1964 she won the Nobel Prize in chemistry “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.” She was the third woman ever to win the prize in chemistry (after Marie Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie).
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation