Today, Google celebrates the legacy of British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin with a doodle on its homepage. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, born May 12, 1910 in Egypt but raised in England, was fascinated by crystals from a young age and received a book authored by Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Henry Bragg on her 16th birthday, sparking her interest in X-ray crystallography. Hodgkin studied physics and chemistry as an undergraduate at Somerville College at the University of Oxford and received her doctorate in chemistry from Cambridge University. Despite being diagnosed at only 24 with rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually crippled her hands and feet, Hodgkin never ceased in her pursuit of scientific truth.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964–making her the third woman to win the award after Marie Curie and Irene Joliot-Curie–for elucidating the structures of Vitamin B12 and penicillin using X-ray crystallography, the same technique that Rosalind Franklin employed to illuminate the double helical structure of DNA. X-ray crystallography allows a researcher to discern a molecule’s three-dimensional arrangement of atoms by shooting X-rays at a crystallized sample of the substance of interest and then observing the pattern of diffracted X-rays as they bounce off the electrons of the atoms in the crystal. The structure of penicillin, which Hodgkin discovered while working alongside colleague Ernst Chain in 1946, is shown in the Google doodle; Hodgkin’s model is on display at the Science Museum in London. In announcing her prize, the Swedish Academy of Science praised Hodgkin’s “exceptional skill, in which chemical knowledge, intuition, imagination, and perseverance have been conspicuous.” In 1969, after 35 years of work, Hodgkin was also able to decipher the structure of insulin.
Aside from her scientific endeavors, Hodgkin was also an active humanitarian. From 1976 to 1988, she served as chair of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, an international organization of scholars and public figures inspired by a manifesto written by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell and aimed at reducing and eliminating the threat posed to humanity by nuclear weapons and war.
Hodgkin won the Lenin Peace Prize and earned the Order of Merit, Britain’s most respected royal order, making her the second woman to have done so after Florence Nightingale, who was also born this day in 1820. The Order of Merit is limited at any time to 24 members who have excelled in science, art, letters, or the armed services. Hodgkin was the first woman to win the Copley Medal and remains the only British woman to have ever received a Nobel Prize in the sciences. She died in July 1994, at age 84, after suffering a stroke. Upon her death, The Times of London observed, “She will always be remembered for her discovery of the structure of penicillin, of the antipernicious anemia factor vitamin B12 and of the diabetic hormone, insulin.” An obituary beautifully described her in this way:
“She pursued her crystallographic studies, not for the sake of honours, but because this was what she liked to do. 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. 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.”