Tag Archives: penicillin

Celebrating Dorothy Hodgkin: Britain’s First Female Winner of a Nobel Science Prize

Rachel Boon, Content Developer, looks at the legacy of one of Britain’s most famous scientists, one of the stars of a new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens in January 2015

Today marks exactly 50 years since Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, on 10 December, 1964. Hodgkin won the prestigious prize “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”. She was only the third woman to win the prestigious prize – the crowning achievement of a 30 year career spent unravelling the structures of proteins, including insulin.

Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1964 for her studies using X-ray crystallography, with which she worked out the atomic structure of penicillin, vitamin B-12 and insulin. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1964 for her studies using X-ray crystallography, with which she worked out the atomic structure of penicillin, vitamin B-12 and insulin. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Hodgkin first found fame when she finally solved the structure of penicillin on Victory in Europe Day in 1945.

Alexander Fleming had identified the anti-bacterial properties of penicillium mould in 1928 but thought the substance was too unstable to isolate as a drug.  At Oxford University Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley proved otherwise and successfully purified the antibiotic for human use in 1941.

Once the potential was realised, vast amounts of the drug were needed. Chain spoke of his excitement and challenged Hodgkin to find its structure, promising ‘One day we will have crystals for you.’

Penicillin saved many lives during the Second World War. Allied governments recognised the potential of the ‘wonder drug’ and the race was on to convert a laboratory discovery into a mass- produced drug.

Hodgkin unravelled the structure of penicillin using a method called X-ray crystallography - a technique used to identify the structure of molecules. Hodgkin had been fascinated by crystals from a young age and on her sixteenth birthday received a book about using X-rays to analyse crystals, which greatly inspired her.

You can see Hodgkin’s three dimensional atomic structure of penicillin in our new exhibition opening in January.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy Hodgkin, c.1945. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Another notable molecular structure Hodgkin tackled was that of vitamin B12, which she cracked with the help of Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE computer, which is on display in our Information Age gallery.

The Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

The Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

These achievements had an immense impact on chemistry, biochemistry and medical science, establishing the power of X-ray crystallography, and changing the practice of synthetic chemistry.

She was one of the first people in April 1953 to travel from Oxford to Cambridge to see the model of the double helix structure of DNA, constructed by Briton Francis Crick and American James Watson, based on data acquired by Rosalind Franklin, which can also be seen in the Museum’s  Making the Modern World gallery.

Crick and Watson's DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credit: Science Museum / SSPL

Hodgkin was awarded the Order of Merit, only the second woman to be honoured in this way after Florence Nightingale. She was also the first woman to be awarded the Royal Society’s Copley medal, its oldest and most prestigious award.

She died in July 1994, aged 84. In her honour, the Royal Society established the prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship for early career stage researchers.

The origins of the technique she used date back to when X-rays, one of the most remarkable discoveries of the late 19th century, had been shown to react strangely when exposed to crystals, producing patterns of spots on a photographic plate.

You can find out more about Dorothy Hodgkin in our new exhibition, Churchill’s Scientists, which opens on 23 January 2015. The exhibition will look at the triumphs in science during Churchill’s period in power, both in war and in the post-war era.

Google Doodle celebrates pioneering chemist Dorothy Hodgkin’s 104th birthday

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs

Google today celebrates the life of the Nobel-prize-winning chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) with a Doodle on its homepage.

Here you can see the inspiration for the Doodle on what would have been her 104th birthday, her historic image of the three dimensional atomic structure of penicillin, which she deduced with a method called X ray crystallography.

Because it was not possible to focus X rays scattered by the penicillin, Hodgkin used large punch-card operated tabulators, predecessor to the computer, to help analyse the way the molecule diffracted X-rays. You can see the original in the Hidden Structures display case in the Science Museum.

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945. Image credits: Science Museum

Molecular model of penicillin by Dorothy M Crowfoot Hodgkin, England, 1945. Image credits: Science Museum

Hodgkin, who at Oxford University taught the future prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (then Margaret Roberts) in the 1940s, won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.

Another notable molecular structure Hodgkin tackled was that of vitamin B12, which she cracked with the help of Alan Turing’s Pilot Ace computer, which can also be seen in the Museum.

Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credits: Science Museum

Pilot ACE (Automatic Computing Engine), 1950. Image credits: Science Museum

She was one of the first people in April 1953 to travel from Oxford to Cambridge to see the model of the double helix structure of DNA, constructed by Briton Francis Crick and American James Watson, based on data acquired by Rosalind Franklin, which can also be seen in the Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery.

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credits: Science Museum

Crick and Watson’s DNA molecular model, 1953. Image credits: Science Museum

The pioneering protein crystallographer, the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was awarded the Order of Merit, only the second woman to do so, after Florence Nightingale, and was the first to be awarded the Royal Society’s Copley medal, its oldest and most prestigious award.

She died in July 1994, aged 84. In her honour, the Royal Society has established the prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship for early career stage researchers.

The origins of the technique she used date back to when X-rays, one of the most remarkable discoveries of the late 19th century, had been shown to react strangely when exposed to crystals, producing patterns of spots on a photographic plate.

In 1912 physicists William Bragg (1862-1942) and his son Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971) worked out a formula that linked the X-ray diffraction pattern with a crystal’s atomic structure, paving the way for X-ray crystallography as a technique to determine the structure of materials at the atomic level. For this, Bragg and his son won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1915.

 

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

1920: Penicillin discovery

Each day as part of the Great British Innovation Vote – a quest to find the greatest British innovation of the past 100 years – we’ll be picking one innovation per decade to highlight. Today, from the 1920s, the discovery of Penicillin.

It’s hard to imagine life without penicillin. This drug, which many of us take for granted, has saved millions of lives since its discovery by Alexander Fleming less than a century ago.

Alexander Fleming in his Lab, December 1943.

Alexander Fleming and Penicillin.
Image Credit: Credit © Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society said, “Just imagine a world without antibiotics, a world where infections that would barely keep you off work or school today, would have actually killed you. That was the world that existed just a little over 70 years ago.” listen to ‘Sir Paul Nurse’ on Audioboo

Today, penicillin continues to fight against infectious diseases. Yet who would have thought you could create such a phenomenal medicine from mould? Fleming, a bacteriologist working at St. Mary’s Medical School in London, observed that certain bacteria were killed by mould when he saw a bacteria-free circle forming around a culture dish used to grow microbes, and by 1944 the drug was being mass-produced and proved a powerful weapon in fighting diseases such as pneumonia and syphilis.

Thanks to Penicillin, we lead much longer, healthier lives which is why it deserves your vote as the Greatest British Innovation.