IF YOU were studying the scientific structure and makeup of a world-class chemist — what elements and environments are optimal, and in what alchemy of nature and nurture — you could learn a lot considering the life and pioneering career of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.
Begin with stimulating far-off locations for a British daughter of scientists, such as Dorothy’s birth in Cairo in 1910, and her early years spent elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East, where her educator father worked in antiquities and then archaeology, and her mother studied both early weaving and botany. Her visits to the Sudan (and a girlhood introduction there to crystals), and later to excavation sites near Jerusalem, would feed this sense of scientific wonder.
Introduce our budding scientist, too, to chemicals, and allow her — as an adolescent of the 1920s, to join her school’s nearly all-boys chemistry groups, where our test case develops a love of biochemistry alongside archaeology — keen twin interests by the time she heads off to Oxford. (Bonus twist: By your sweet-16 birthday, you’re gifted with a book — authored by a Nobel-winning physicist — that illuminates X-ray crystallography for you.)
Then throw a pinch of fate into the academic test tube, as a chance meeting on a train between a doctor — the same man who gave you study chemicals in the Sudan at age 10 — and a professor leads to our young scientist transferring to Cambridge, and developing an interest in metals.
By the ’30s, our perfectly nurtured and mentored scientist is teaching at women’s colleges (amid marriage to a historian) and, as a researcher, deepening her understanding of X-ray crystallography and the three-dimensional structures of protein molecules.
Then cue her crossing paths with Ernst Chain, who was working on penicillin trials. By 1946, our well-honed, intellectually fearless scientist has confirmed the complex structure of penicillin, leading to advances in semisynthetic production. A decade later, she doggedly discovers the structure of vitamin B12. And in 1969, she cracks the structural puzzle that is insulin.
That is the fascinating and much-decorated life of Dorothy Hodgkin, who would also co-found an international union of crystallographers; pursue global causes for peace; and remain the only British woman to receive a science Nobel Prize (1964).
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin died in 1994 as both inspiration and legend. Today, Google celebrates the 104th anniversary of her birth with a molecular Google Doodle.
Here’s to the life and legacy of the well-nurtured, voraciously curious scientist.