A blue plaque for Dorothy

IMG_1333Yesterday in brilliant sunshine Dorothy Hodgkin’s son and daughter Luke and Liz unveiled a blue plaque in her honour on the house in Oxford’s Woodstock Road that was her home when she won the Nobel prize. Hodgkin died in 1994: if you think recognition has been a long time coming for Britain’s only female Nobel-prizewinning scientist, then bear in mind that people don’t qualify for plaques  until at least 20 years after their deaths. Needless to say Dorothy’s name has been on the list from the earliest opportunity. Continue reading “A blue plaque for Dorothy”


RIP Tony Broad – creator of Nobel-prizewinning X-ray tube

I’ve just been told by the writer Henry Nicholls, who interviewed him in 2009, that the engineer Tony Broad died last week at the age of 93. It is one of my sins of omission as a writer that I did not interview Broad myself when I undertook my research for  Max Perutz and the Secret of Life, though I did acknowledge his critical role in the solution of the first protein structures. Continue reading “RIP Tony Broad – creator of Nobel-prizewinning X-ray tube”

Getting physical with Nobel prizes

It was great to hear on Monday that Norwegian neuroscientist May-Britt Moser had shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with her husband Edvard and their former colleague John O’Keefe of UCL. That brings the all-time number of women awarded Nobel prizes up to 16, and the number of prizes awarded to women to 17 (Marie Curie won twice).

With 572 recipients honoured since 1901, women account for a little under 3 per cent. Things are improving: in the first 56 years only four women received the prize, with the remaining 13 awards since then, and the intervals seem to be decreasing.

Dorothy Hodgkin and her husband Thomas at the Nobel ball
Dorothy Hodgkin and her husband Thomas at the Nobel ball

But if you look at the distribution across the three categories of science, then one fact stands out. Women have received only six prizes in the physical sciences, two in Physics (1 per cent) and four in Chemistry (2.4 per cent). Over 5 per cent of the recipients of the Medicine prize have been female.

Splitting the Nobel era into two halves again, the number of women winning physical science prizes has stayed static. There have been only three since 1957. Maria Goeppert-Mayer won the prize for physics in 1963. Two women have won the prize for Chemistry, and both were X-ray crystallographers. Britain’s Dorothy Hodgkin won in 1964 for her work on penicillin and vitamin B12, and Israeli scientist Ada Yonath in 2009 for her work on the ribosome.

As her biographer, I’m obviously enjoying all the attention currently being paid to Dorothy Hodgkin on the 50th anniversary of her prize (such as the radio series on her letters, and the new edition of my book). I tend to labour the point that no British woman has since won a science Nobel in any category. But I wonder if I shouldn’t instead be asking why only one woman of any nationality has since won a Nobel in Physics or Chemistry – and she was another crystallographer, a field that has been unusually welcoming to women.

But is it art?

I’ve often said that Dorothy Hodgkin* approached her scientific work with the soul of an artist. She saw beauty both in the natural forms she studied and in the geometric shapes that emerged from her painstaking analysis of X-ray reflections. Her goal was to produce a finished structure that was as perfect as it could be. While she was well aware that the structure of insulin, for example, was crucial to its role in controlling blood glucose, she left it to others to make those functional connections.

Thanks to an invitation from the wonderful crew who run the Trowelblazers website and blog (the result is posted today), I have recently spent some time thinking about a painting that Dorothy made as a teenager. It is a faithful reproduction of a mosaic pavement from a 6th century Byzantine church in Jerash, excavated by a team led by her father John Winter Crowfoot in 1928. It is beautiful, its rigid geometry softened by its exquisite decoration and the subtlety of the earth colours of which it is composed.

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Detail of Dorothy Hodgkin’s painting of a mosaic floor from Jerash (© Yale University Art Gallery, with thanks to Lisa Brody)

The 19th century critic John Ruskin believed that learning to draw and colour was a means to the end of seeing the world as it truly was. ‘Not only is there but one way of doing things rightly,’ he wrote, ‘but there is only one way of seeing them, and that is, seeing the whole of them.’

Through making her painting, Dorothy saw how the Byzantine artists had solved geometrical problems to make a pattern that was pleasing to the eye. She also saw that faithfully reproducing the tesserae, or tiles, as individual dots of paint, was the only way to recreate the whole image. And having chosen her method, she executed it with great skill and extraordinary patience.

But is it a work of art? I think this is a matter for debate. As Dorothy ruefully acknowledged in an interview later in life, today there would be no need to make such a painting, because the floor could be even more faithfully reproduced using high-resolution digital photography. Would such a photograph, however painstakingly lit, focused and printed, be a work of art?

I think I will sit on the fence and simply observe that both the artist and the scientist need, as Ruskin urged, to learn to look, and to see the whole while placing the elements that compose it. Dorothy was excited as a schoolgirl that the technique of X-ray crystallography would allow her to ‘see’ atoms. But her great skill was in being able to ‘see’ molecules as the atoms – gradually, painstakingly – swam into focus in her electron density maps.

*Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life is reissued today as an ebook and paperback by Bloomsbury Reader!

Dorothy Hodgkin and me

newjacketThough I once caught a glimpse of a frail figure in a wheelchair at a function in an Oxford college garden, I never met Dorothy Hodgkin. But she has probably influenced my life and work more profoundly than any other.

Twenty years ago I was writing regular science features for the Oxford alumni magazine, Oxford Today. For the summer issue of 1994, I took as a ‘peg’ the 60th anniversary of Hodgkin’s first research paper* and wrote a piece about her life and work, comparing the balance of opportunities and obstacles with those of young female scientists at the time.

Through the article I came into contact with the her family, though she herself sadly died just weeks after it appeared. Finding (to my astonishment) that no one was working on a biography, I offered myself for the job. Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life first appeared in 1998, published by Granta, greeted by a very gratifying clutch of reviews and a couple of literary prize nominations.

Though I quickly realised that scientific biographies would never pave a route to riches, I found that being an Author gave me a new identity and the opportunity to hover on the fringes of literary and historical as well as scientific circles. I also discovered that historical research was hugely enjoyable. The days I spent sitting in the Bodleian Library, sifting through archive boxes full of correspondence, were some of the most rewarding of my life. And absolutely nothing beats the buzz of seeing a finished book arriving on your desk in its pristine dust-jacket.

So I went on and wrote three more books, including a biography of Hodgkin’s friend and fellow crystallographer, Max Perutz. But Dorothy has stayed with me through the years. I wrote her entries for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Encyclopedia Britannica and countless other talks and articles. The book has given me a calling card to pursue a long-standing interest in gender and science (eg articles in Notes and Records of the Royal Society and Nature). In 2010, the centenary of her birth, I wrote a short play, Hidden Glory, based on her letters and other writings, and found myself in the role of producer as our tiny professional company toured small venues around the country.

I was slow to wake up to the fact that 2014, the International Year of Crystallography, would also be the 50th anniversary of Hodgkin’s Nobel prize. But between them the IUCr, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Somerville College Oxford and numerous other bodies are making sure that the milestone is suitably marked, and I have been swept up in some of their activities. It dawned on me that just as interest in her was peaking – her 104th birthday on 12 May was marked by a Google Doodle – her biography, out of print since 2008, was available only second hand and at increasingly eye-watering prices.

To my great joy Bloomsbury Reader, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing that specialises in ebook and print-on-demand editions of out of print books, enthusiastically adopted the orphan title, and will publish it tomorrow. While the original edition carried a jacket photograph of Hodgkin as a very young woman, the new jacket (see above) bears a beautiful portrait taken in later life by my friend and neighbour Deborah Elliott. Hodgkin’s direct gaze is warm and wise, with a hint of sadness – her beloved husband Thomas had died a few years before, and she was increasingly crippled by arthritis. But it also gleams with hope, the hope that kept her going throughout a long and by no means easy career.

I remain too much of a dilettante to claim to have followed Hodgkin’s example in my own working life. But the chance to explore hers has shown me that biography is about much more than holding up ideals for emulation. It provides an opportunity to explore the practice of science that takes into account the human factors as much as the technical or institutional. In her case, this included absolute integrity and a commitment to the betterment of society, which she saw as inseparable from the scientific challenges she faced.

So thank you Dorothy, for everything.


*Actually I was wrong about this. 1934 was the year she and JD Bernal published the first paper on protein crystallography, but she had half a dozen other papers to her name by that time. I could just as well have mentioned the 30th anniversary of her Nobel. I hope I have become a better historian since.


Universally challenged

I had to heave a sigh, not for the first time, when during last night’s BBC University Challenge quarter-final the otherwise frighteningly well-informed Pembroke College Cambridge team failed to identify Dorothy Hodgkin from the Royal Society stamp issued last year.

Most of them are reading for science degrees, too. They did have a stab – after a hasty discussion, the electron density map at the top of the stamp seemed to give them a clue. DNA, someone ventured (it’s actually Vitamin B12). Rosalind Franklin! She has always been better known than Dorothy, not so much for the invaluable role she played in the solution of the DNA structure, but for her subsequent caricaturing by Jim Watson and the fully justified backlash that followed. But it wasn’t the answer Jeremy Paxman was after, and they uncharacteristically failed to add to their eventual winning total of 240 points.

I did what I could last year – Dorothy’s centenary – to raise her profile, touring Hidden Glory and contributing to a day in her memory at the Royal Society. But it seems that even the distinction of being Britain’s only female science Nobelist is not enough to penetrate the consciousness of the best young Cambridge minds.

Remembering LEO

Lyons Electronic Office – LEO – on completion in 1953

Today is a day of forgotten heroes, and the Leo Foundation chose it to remember those visionaries at J. Lyons & Co who built the world’s first business computer. Ever since I wrote A computer called LEO I’ve been honoured to belong to the small community of LEO veterans and enthusiasts who come together from time to time to celebrate its extraordinary achievements. This month sees the 60th anniversary of the day on which the machine ran the world’s first clerical computing application, known as ‘Bakery Valuations’. To mark the occasion, the Leo Foundation invited LEO veterans, computer history VIPs and members of the press to a lunch at the Science Museum. The event was sponsored by Google. We had all been delighted when Google’s Eric Schmidt went out of his way to mention LEO as a high point of British innovation in his McTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh in August. Today I discovered that the researcher working with him on the speech, Lynette Webb, found the story in my book, thanks to a chain of events involving Bletchley Park and the business network LinkedIn. As a further consequence, Google arranged for its in-house video unit, Across the Pond Productions, to make a five-minute film for the anniversary celebration, and you can now see it online. You can also read the story in the Daily Telegraph, and hear Frank Land, one of the programming pioneers, speaking on the Today programme this morning.