Women in Exploration Home

Dorothy Hodgkin

May 12, 1910

Portrait of Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin was a British chemist and crystallographer. She was known for using x-ray techniques to determine the structure of biologically important molecules, including penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12. Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964, and her work was integral to the improvement of medicine and structural biology.

Hodgkin was born May 12, 1910, in Cairo, Egypt. In 1914, she was moved to England to live with her grandparents while her parents moved to Sudan to work. Hodgkin began studying at the Sir John Leman Grammar School. She had a keen interest in chemistry and became one of just two girls allowed to study it at school as it was considered a boys’ subject.

Hodgkin enrolled at the University of Oxford to study chemistry in 1928. She received first-class honors when she graduated in 1932, becoming the institution’s third woman to achieve this. In the fall of 1932, Hodgkin began her PhD at the University of Cambridge, where she undertook crystallographic investigations of steroid crystals. Upon completion of her PhD, Hodgkin returned to Somerville College, Oxford with a research fellowship. She later became a fellow and a tutor and remained at the university for the rest of her academic career.

Hodgkin’s work was dedicated to the use of x-ray crystallography to identify the structure of three-dimensional biological molecules. In 1945, alongside colleagues, she discovered the structure of penicillin. Hodgkin showed penicillin to have an atomic core of 3 carbon atoms and a nitrogen atom in a square-shaped ring, now known as a beta-lactam ring. Prior to this, scientists were divided on the structure of penicillin as many believed the beta-lactam ring was not stable enough to exist. Hodgkin’s discovery had significant implications for medicine as it allowed mass production and widespread use of the antibiotic, and in turn, the successful treatment of many bacterial infections.

Hodgkin also used x-ray crystallography to determine the structure of insulin. She first received a small sample of crystalline insulin in 1934, but x-ray crystallography and computers were not yet advanced enough to work with more complex molecules such as insulin. It was 35 years later in 1969 that Hodgkin was able to determine the three-dimensional shape of the insulin molecule. This made large-scale production of insulin to treat diabetes possible, but also allowed scientists to alter insulin’s structure to refine and significantly improve the treatments that were available.

Hodgkin’s other achievements include determining the structure of vitamin B12 in 1954. The vitamin B12 molecule has the largest, most complex structure of all vitamins, and her findings had significant impacts on the treatment and understanding of pernicious anemia.

Hodgkin’s work was widely recognized. She was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947 and became a foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1960. Hodgkin earned the Order of the Merit in 1965, Britain’s highest honor for achievements in science, arts, and public life. She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for her determinations by x-ray of the structures of important biochemical substances. She remains the only British female to have won a Nobel Prize for science.

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin died at the age of 84 in 1994. She has received many posthumous honors. In August 1996, Hodgkin was one of five “Women of Achievement” selected for a British commemorative stamp set. The Royal Society awards the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship “for outstanding scientists at an early stage of their research career who require a flexible working pattern due to personal circumstances, such as parenting or caring responsibilities or health-related reasons.”

Fact check: We love accuracy. If something looks incorrect, please contact us and let us know.