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By Rachel Boon on

Celebrating Dorothy Hodgkin

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

Today (10 December 2014) 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Rachel Boon is the Content Developer for Churchill’s Scientists, which opens from 23 January 2015 to January 2016.