Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, 1910-1994

Linus Pauling and Dorothy Hodgkin, 1957.

[Part 1 of 2]

On May 12, 1910, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin – a renowned X-ray crystallographer and long-time friend of both Linus and Ava Helen Pauling – was born in Cairo, Egypt. In honor of the hundredth anniversary of her birth, today’s and Thursday’s posts will be devoted to the discussion of not only Hodgkin’s life and extensive contributions to the scientific community, but also her friendship to the Pauling family.

Although Dorothy Crowfoot was born in Egypt, her parents were English and she spent most of her childhood in the United Kingdom. When World War I began in 1914, she and her two sisters were taken to England, where they lived for a time with their grandparents. After the war, Dorothy’s mother, who had moved to Sudan from Cairo with her husband in 1916, decided to return to England to be with her daughters. In 1920 the family moved to Beccles, England, and in 1921 Crowfoot entered the Sir John Leman Grammar School. During her time there, her interest in science grew immensely.

In 1928, after spending a year studying Latin and botany, Dorothy began to focus on chemistry at Oxford’s Somerville College, where she quickly became interested in X-ray crystallography. In 1932 Crowfoot left Oxford for Cambridge to work under J.D. Bernal. Two years later she returned to Oxford and after another two years of study was appointed a research fellow there, a position that she held until 1977.  During her time at Oxford, Dorothy supervised the work of many students, including a young Clara Brink, whose papers now reside in the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections.

In 1937 Crowfoot married Thomas Hodgkin, with whom she had three children.

Throughout her lengthy scientific career, Hodgkin worked with great success on a wide variety of research projects pertaining to molecules such as sterols, vitamin B12 and insulin. She participated in the 1946 meetings that led to the formation of the International Union for Crystallography, and also became a member of various academies and societies, including the Royal Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1964 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin received her highest decoration: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.” She also received the Order of Merit, the Lenin Peace Prize – for which she was nominated by Linus Pauling – the Copley Medal, and many other awards for her extensive research.

The first mention of Dorothy Hodgkin in the Pauling Papers appears in correspondence dated to 1947. In it, Pauling writes to Dr. H. Marshall Chadwell of the Rockefeller Foundation, asking for advice about Hodgkin, who will be coming to the U.S. in the fall on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Pauling states that he has “known her work very well, and for a long time, and I have been looking forward to meeting her.” Not long after, Pauling and Hodgkin did meet, and they soon began personally exchanging letters. This process lasted essentially for the rest of their lives, and allows for direct observation of their developing friendship.

Letter from Pauling to Hodgkin, October 7, 1953.

Although much of the correspondence between Hodgkin and Pauling relates to research, they often discuss more personal matters. Alongside the numerous letters on Hodgkin’s work pertaining to Vitamin B12 and Pauling’s research on proteins, there are many letters discussing subjects such as health issues – not only their own but also those of their spouses – Pauling’s experience of being trapped on a cliff, and various travel plans – many of which set up visits to each other.

One specific letter of interest from Pauling to Hodgkin is dated September 14, 1955, in which Pauling writes

to congratulate you on the wonderful job that you have done on Vitamin B12. I find it hard to believe, although very satisfying, that the methods of x-ray crystallography can be used so effectively on such a complex molecule.

Hodgkin had begun work with the Vitamin B12 molecule in 1948.

Another interesting letter from Pauling to Hodgkin illustrates the extent to which the scientific viewpoint permeated Pauling’s thinking on a whole host of matters. In his letter dated January 27, 1959, Pauling thanks Hodgkin for a book that she had sent to him – Christopher Hill’s Puritanism and Revolution – and notes that “I have written to Christopher that I think that mad hatters are mad because of mercury poison – felt is made by treating the hair with mercuric nitrate. His chapter 11 is about a mad hatter.”

One last letter of note is written by Hodgkin on October 14, 1974, in which she informs Pauling that she “should be very happy indeed to be an Associate of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine.” In this same letter, Vitamin B12 makes another appearance, demonstrating the longevity of her work with the molecule. This time, Hodgkin sends a stereo print of her structure of the Vitamin B12 coenzyme, which she calls “the most important naturally occurring form of the vitamin.”

Hodgkin and Pauling, 1986.

Unfortunately, not every letter between Pauling and Hodgkin comes under happy circumstances. On December 15, 1981, Hodgkin writes to Pauling to mourn the death of Ava Helen, which had occurred on December 7. Some six months later, on June 4, 1982, Pauling writes to Hodgkin in order to express his sympathy after hearing that her husband Thomas had died.

Hodgkin’s leading work in the field of X-ray crystallography made her one of the most decorated and successful scientists of the twentieth century, as well as a pioneering example of the role that women could play in the laboratory. Although a deep interest in science may have initially introduced Hodgkin and Pauling, our brief look at the correspondence between the two shows that their professional relationship quickly evolved into a long-lasting friendship.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin died on July 29, 1994, twenty-one days before Linus Pauling.

Check back on Thursday for our post on Hodgkin and Ava Helen Pauling, and make sure to visit the Linus Pauling Online portal for more information on Linus Pauling.