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Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, née Dorothy Mary Crowfoot, was awarded the Nobel prize in 1964, for her “determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.” Simply put, Hodgkin’s research involved placing crystals in the path of an X-ray beam. Because the chemical make-up of these crystals changes the angle in which the X-ray beam travels, Hodgkin was able to use this information, with the help of computers programmed to solve complex mathematical formulas, to create a three-dimensional picture of a compound’s chemical structure. The important biochemical substances she studied during her career included penicillin, insulin and vitamin B12. Because of her work in determining the structure of these molecules, Hodgkin paved the way for chemists to not only better understand how these compounds work in the human body, but also figure out how to synthesize these life-saving compounds for mass production.
Hodgkin was not only a scientist, but also a humanitarian who regularly advocated for international peace and human rights. Her activism became an especially large part of her life after being awarded the Nobel Prize, which allowed her to begin leveraging her newfound scientific distinction to fight for causes she cared about. She was known to vocally campaign against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam war, and cuts to education funding. She also promoted scientific research in developing countries and used the majority of her Nobel Prize money to support international students who wanted to study in the UK.
It should be noted that Dorothy Hodgkin maintained a successful scientific career during a time when sexism in society was even more explicit than it is today. While it should be made clear that at least part of her success was due to luck and fortunate life circumstances (race, family support, family connections, etc.), she was still not immune to the widespread bias against women in science. In fact, when she won the Nobel Prize in 1964, the UK tabloids read, “Nobel Prize for British Wife,” and "British woman wins Nobel Prize – £18,750 prize to mother of three." If you’re a woman, or someone who is a wife and/or a mother, I suspect those headlines bring up some feelings and maybe an eye-roll or two.
However, even though her gender is often what people focus on when telling her story, an aspect of her life that is rarely mentioned (and if so, only briefly) is the fact she was chronically ill. Dorothy Hodgkin was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) at the age of 24. RA is a chronic, autoimmune disease characterized by inflammation, pain, and swelling of the joints. In Hodgkin's case, it primarily affected her hands and feet, though according to her, “every joint...seemed to be affected.”
Having RA must have been difficult for Hodgkin, considering the intricate movements required to set up her crystal specimens. But much like she had to overcome sexist microaggressions because she was a woman in science, she also had to adapt to the fact that her work environment just wasn’t set up for someone with a disability. For instance, as her condition progressed, it got to a point where she could no longer turn on the main switch of her X-ray equipment. So, to continue her work, she simply decided to attach a longer lever to the switch that was easier for her to grasp. Later in life, she wanted to remain active in the scientific community despite having difficulty walking due to painful joints and deformities in her feet. In this case, she found freedom in the use of mobility aids, and was often seen traveling between conference sessions in a wheelchair.
Dorothy Hodgkin was known by her colleagues as a "woman of indomitable spirit" and was admired because she "refused to let even severe arthritis call a halt to her scientific activity.” Though a compliment, of course, I often wonder why nondisabled people are awed at the fact she was a successful scientist “despite” her disability, instead of asking why it’s so difficult for a disabled person to have a successful scientific career, in the first place.
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Ferry, G. (2020) Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin: The exceptional professor who solved the structure of insulin. BBC Science Focus Magazine. [Link]
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Houghton, D. (2014). Pioneer in X-ray crystallography, Dorothy Hodgkin is the only British woman to have received the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Royal Society of Chemistry. [Link]
Simmons, J. (2013). What is RA? RheumatoidArthritis.net. [Link].