Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial address

Dorothy Hodgkin

M.F. Perutz

Address delivered at a memorial service in the University Church, Oxford on 4 March 1995

On 17 November 1938 I took the train from Cambridge to London to attend a Royal Society Discussion on The Protein Molecules. I went with keen anticipation, because the opening address was to be given by Professor The Svedberg from Uppsala, the inventor of the ultracentrifuge who had proved for the first time that proteins form discrete molecules. To my disappointment the great man's lecture was excruciatingly boring, but after him an attractive young woman took the stage and talked enthusiastically about her first X-ray diffraction studies of crystalline insulin. There was life in her talk and life within her, because one month and three days later her first son Luke was born. Dorothy lectured in that state to the Royal Society as if it were the most natural thing in the world without any pretence of trying to be unconventional, as it certainly was at the time. Some women intellectuals regard children as impediments to their careers, but Dorothy radiated motherly warmth even while doing scientific work. Concentration came to her so easily that she could give all her attention to a child's chatter at one moment and switch to trigonometric functions the next. In 1937, she had married the historian Thomas Hodgkin, and they had three children, Luke, a mathematician, Lizzie, a historian, and Toby, an agriculturist. Dorothy and Thomas remained a devoted couple, and Dorothy was disconsolate at his death on a holiday in Greece in 1982.

Most of my fellow research students in Cambridge came from the middle classes, but Dorothy came from the landed gentry, the leisured class of whom Bertrand Russell wrote in his essay "In Praise of Idleness" that it "contributed nearly the whole of what we call civilisation. It cultivated the arts and discovered the sciences; it wrote the books, invented the philosophies and refined social relations", but then he added acidly: "even if most of them never thought of anything more intelligent than hunting foxes and punishing poachers". Her maternal grandfather was the squire of Nettleham parish in Lincolnshire; his wife owned a villa, Villa Lincolnia, in San Remo. Her mother was educated at home and sent to finishing school in France to learn French and Music. As a young girl she rode out hunting foxes.

Dorothy's paternal grandfather was Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral. He sent her father to Marlborough and Oxford to read Honours Moderations and Greats. After a time as lecturer in classics at Birmingham, her father become Assistant Director of Education for the Sudan, living in a house outside Cairo within sight of the pyramids, where Dorothy was born in 1910.

August 1914 found the family on holiday in England. Her mother left Dorothy and her two little sisters in care of a nanny in a house near their grandmother's and left for Egypt with her father, returning only once during the entire four-year war to visit her children. It seems cruel at an age when a week would have seemed an eternity to the children, but Dorothy bore her no grudge. While other women have made their literary careers by derepressing their resentment against their mothers, Dorothy never spoke or wrote about her own mother but with the greatest affection, and thought that she had benefited from her parents' absence, because it had nursed her independent spirit. Her father, though by now Director of Education in the Sudan, does not seem to have been much concerned about the education of his daughters. While her parents remained in the Sudan, Dorothy was moved from one private school to another until she was eleven. She finally entered the local authority secondary coeducational school in Beccles, Suffolk where she found herself very much behind the other children, especially in arithmetic. Her report for the lower fifth form hardly foreshadowed her future career:

             Geography  -   good

             French     -   good

             Drawing    -   very good

             Chemistry  -   good on the whole

             Scripture  -   excellent

Note that she was taught neither English nor mathematics. Later, as a Fellow of Somerville, she had girls' education in science very much at heart and used to travel to school speech days in order to encourage girls to apply to Somerville to read science.

When Lewis Wolpert asked Dorothy in a BBC interview: " You must have at one stage realized that you had talents that set you aside from your friends and colleagues. When was this?". She replied: "I don't think it was so very obvious in a curious way because of my sketchy education. I became first only at the very end of school", when her School Leaving Certificate attained the best marks in the whole country. She was admitted to Somerville in October 1928. Except for two years at Cambridge, she remained attached to it for the rest of her active life, working there as tutor in chemistry and Fellow from 1936 until her retirement 41 years later. She was no disciplinarian. She gained young people's respect and affection by her wisdom, knowledge and warm interest in their doings.

Dorothy's interest in chemistry was first aroused when she was 11, when a governess with Parents' National Educational Union training, a union founded by a Miss Mason in Ambleside to improve the education given by governesses, devoted a whole term to it. When Dorothy was 14, her parents took her and her sister Joan for a term to Khartoum where Dorothy was allowed to see the Wellcome Laboratories. One day she met there a geological expedition returning with small pellets of gold from a gold-bearing stream. She writes: To amuse us children, they threw their gold into a basin of sand and water and then showed how the gold could be 'panned' back, by gentle rocking of the basin and gradually pouring the sand away. We passed on to the soil science department, where a particular friend of my father's was working. He was Dr. Joseph, the government chemist; we called him Uncle Joseph. When we returned home that day I was fired with an immediate desire to experiment myself. Why shouldn't I find gold? So we borrowed a tin basin from the kitchen and proceeded to 'pan' the blackish sand through which a small stream or gadwal ran in our garden. We found some small black minerals. I guessed from my primitive knowledge of chemistry it might be manganese dioxide and went across to Dr. Joseph's chemical laboratory to ask if I might try the tests I knew from qualitative analytical chemistry. He readily agreed but as things turned out he had to help me. The ore was ilmenite, a mixed oxide of iron and titanium, and titanium was not in my school chemistry book.

When Dorothy left Khartoum, Dr. Joseph presented her with a surveyor's box which she could carry around and use for chemical analyses of minerals. After her return to England, she set up a chemical laboratory in her attic where she spent many happy hours doing experiments. Her mother bought her W.H. (father) Bragg's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on Old Trades and New Knowledge and on the Nature of Things, where Bragg mentioned X-ray diffraction, ending with the words: "By this means you can see atoms in crystals". From that moment, Dorothy decided that this was what she wanted to do, but later, when she realized the amount of mathematics involved, she took fright.

Somerville College

May 17th, 1931

My dearest Mummy and Daddy,

        ... A few days ago Dr. Joseph wrote to me to say that he had asked

Professor Lowry about the possibility of my doing X-ray work on crystals -

and whether it was a good thing ...

        ... And all that sounded very nice - really excellent just then -

since the X-ray work would be useful in absolutely anything I decided to do

ever afterwards and yet if I did not do it now - I probably should not have

the chance again.

        But at the moment I'm feeling quite appalled at the prospect. 

There will be such a fearful lot of work - and mathematics - involved.  And

I was just beginning to rejoice so much in the idea of a nice quiet organic

research that would involve no brain whatsoever.

        As it is, it will be pure brain work - I'm just shivering in my

shoes - terribly afraid I really am trying to force too much on one poor

little brain that is almost non-existent already ...

All the same she plucked up her courage and joined the crystallographer J.D. Bernal at Cambridge. With him she worked mainly on compounds related to cholesterol and the sex hormones, but without actually solving any of these structures which were still much too difficult. The highlight of her Cambridge stay came with a gift from Sweden of crystals of the digestive enzyme pepsin.

Proteins were already known to be the workhorses of the living cell. Genes were also believed to be proteins. But how did they work? Bernal and she discovered that the crystals of pepsin gave beautiful X-ray diffraction patterns, showing that the protein molecules must be ordered, with almost every one of their several thousand atoms occupying a definite place. This discovery gave a new insight into the nature of life on the atomic scale, showing that it combined exquisite order with bewildering complexity; and it posed the challenge of finding out what that order was.

Next year, here in Oxford, she put a crystal of another protein, insulin, in front of an X-ray beam and placed a photographic plate behind it. That night, when she developed the film, she saw minute, regularly arranged spots forming a diffraction pattern that held out the prospect of solving insulin's structure. Later that night she wandered around the streets of Oxford, madly excited that she might be the first to determine the structure of a protein, but next morning she woke with a start: could she be sure that her crystals really were insulin rather than some trivial salt? She rushed back to the lab before breakfast. A simple spot test on a microscope showed that her crystals took up a stain characteristic for protein, which revived her hopes. She never imagined that it would take her 34 years to solve that complex structure, nor that once solved it would have medical applications. It has recently enabled genetic engineers to change the chemistry of insulin in order to improve its benefits for diabetics.

Dorothy Hodgkin used to labour on the structure of life in a crypt-like room tucked away in a corner of Ruskin's Cathedral of Science, the Oxford Museum. Her Gothic window was high above, as in a monk's cell, and beneath it was a gallery reachable only by a ladder. Up there she would mount her crystals for X-ray analysis, and descend precariously clutching her treasure with one hand and balancing herself on the ladder with the other. For all its gloomy setting, her lab was a jolly place. As Chemistry Tutor at Somerville she always had girls doing crystal structures for their fourth year and two or three research students of either sex working for their PhDs. They were a cheerful lot, not just because they were young, but because her gentle, firm and affectionate guidance led most of them on to interesting results. It was here that Dorothy did most of her classic work on the structures of cholesterol, penicillin, and vitamin B12 which earned her the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.

When Lewis Wolpert asked Dorothy: "Why have you been so successful?" She replied, too modestly: "Only by starting early. For those that came into X-ray crystallography early there was so much gold lying around, one could not help finding it (great laugh)". I should add, by having an encyclopaedic knowledge of structural crystallography and an iron will to succeed. When asked what motivated her, she replied: "I wasn't ambitious. I just liked working in this particular field. I am really an experimentalist. I think with my hands. I liked it as a child. I didn't imagine myself making great discoveries". Yet she always set out for the highest peaks and what's more, she invariably got there. Wolpert asked whether she ever felt strongly in defence of women; rather than complaining that this university had kept her in the junior position of Demonstrator until the ripe age of 45, she said: "No, sometimes this works the other way. I think it's because I don't notice it very much that I am a woman among so many men. There have been moments when it was to my advantage. Sometimes my male colleagues were particularly nice and helpful to me as the lone girl about (great laugh)". I wish I could have played you that tape, because it brings out the infectious, exuberant gaiety in her pursuit of science, like the exuberance with which Jacqueline Du Pre used to play her cello.

Dorothy said to Wolpert that she had inherited her socialist and peace-loving policies from her mother who had had four brothers. In the First World War, two got killed outright and the other two died from its after-effects. These heart-breaking losses made her mother very much concerned with the League of Nations where she took Dorothy when she was 14. That visit had left a lasting impression on her. Later, she shared her husband's faith in the socialist paradise, no matter whether this was in the Soviet Union, China or Vietnam, and tended to close her eyes to the evils of the Communist dictatorships.

Dorothy was more Christian in word and deed than many believers I have known. She radiated love: for chemistry, her family, her friends, her students, her crystals and her college to which she generously gave part of her Nobel Prize for the support of students and for the College staff. Her love was combined with a brilliant mind and an iron will to succeed, regardless of her frail and later severely crippled body. There was magic about her person. She had no enemies, not even among those whose scientific theories she demolished or whose political views she opposed. She was very forgiving. Just as her X-ray cameras bared the intrinsic beauty beneath the rough surface of things, so the warmth and gentleness of her approach to people uncovered in everyone, even the most hardened scientific crook, some hidden kernel of goodness. It was marvellous to have her drop in on you in your lab, like the Spring. She brought interest and enthusiasm for your work, making you feel that it was really important, and more often than not she would point out something relevant that you had overlooked, because she knew more about your problem and the ways of solving it than you did yourself. At scientific meetings she would seem lost in a dream, until she suddenly came out with some penetrating remark, usually made in a diffident tone of voice, and followed by a little laugh, as if wanting to excuse herself for having put everyone else to shame.

Her outlook is best illuminated by some of my favourite quotations:

Orlando says in As You Like It:

Thou art not of the fashion of these times,
Where none will sweat but for promotion.

Boris Pasternak makes Zhivago say:

"The Gospels tell us that there are no nations, only people".

Albert Schweitzer wrote:
"Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it is the only thing".

In her last tragic year Dorothy might have shared King Lear's complaint:

"Infirmity doth still neglect all office,
Whereto our health is bound,
We are not ourselves.
When nature being oppressed commands the mind to suffer with the body".

Dorothy will be remembered as a great chemist, a saintly, tolerant and gentle lover of people and a devoted protagonist of peace.

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