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

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). Continue reading Getting physical with Nobel prizes

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. Continue reading Dorothy Hodgkin and me

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.

Women scientists lost and found

Laura Bassi, professor of anatomy and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna in the 18th century

Just a quick note to mention that I have just published an article in Encyclopedia Britannica on the history of women in science. It was tough to pick out just a few names in the 4500 years or so that the article covers (especially as I had a tight word limit). The ones I’ve included illustrated particular social factors that helped them to exercise their scientific minds: the brief flowering in Enlightenment Italy that saw both Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi appointed professors at Bologna; the opening of women’s colleges in the late 19th century that proved a rich source of scientific assistance to the astronomer Edward Pickering or the geneticist Edward Bateson; the women’s movement that finally opened so many more doors.

The ‘lost’ women of science seems to be quite a topic of debate. There’s also a nice piece by Uta Frith on the Royal Society’s history of science blog, about the palaeontologist Mary Morland. She married Oxford University’s founding Reader in Geology and dinosaur discoverer William Buckland, bore him nine children, edited and illustrated his manuscripts and coped with the mental breakdown of his final years.

My recent experience as a biographer of scientists suggests that being a scientist is a bigger handicap than being a woman when it comes to penetrating  the public consciousness.

A mentor passes on

Alison Brading 1939-2011

Some scientists barely impinge on the general public consciousness, yet have an enormous influence on others. One of these was Alison Brading, Professor Emerita of Pharmacology at Oxford University and former Fellow and Tutor of Lady Margaret Hall. Yesterday  she was laid to rest after her heart and lungs finally gave up the struggle of coping with the aftermath of the polio that infected her in her youth.

The college chapel was packed with her former students and colleagues. Formal obituaries will appear elsewhere, but as I am one of the students that Alison set on the road to a fulfilling career, I wanted to add my personal memory.

I first met Alison when I went for interview at LMH, hoping to be admitted to read physiology and psychology. This was a late subject choice, and one I had totally failed to prepare for in my sixth form studies. I presented myself, aged 17, having offered papers in French and History in the Oxford entrance exam (you had to take it in those days) and planning to take A levels in those subjects plus English.

I had O levels (the predecessors to GCSE) in Biology and Physics-with-Chemistry, so was not an entirely hopeless case, but the college seemed doubtful about my reading physiology and tried to steer me towards philosophy instead. I was convinced, however, that I needed a solid biological underpinning if I was to make sense of the experimental psychology course.

Alison seemed to accept my argument, but clearly needed to establish that I had some basis to start from. ‘What is the function of water in the body?’, she asked. ‘Transport’, I answered, and to this day I have no idea how that word floated into my head. ‘That sounds all right’, she murmured benignly, and the interview was more or less over.

And that is the story of how I came to do a science degree with arts A levels. I won’t say there weren’t some sticky patches on the way, and Alison played an important role in helping to keep me going when times got tough.

It was was an article of faith with her that you could do anything you wanted if you put your mind to it. And as we heard from her brother during the funeral service, this was a lesson she had learned from her own experience. Having left school with a place to read medicine at Oxford, she had contracted polio in Nigeria during the summer holidays. Two years later she had survived the infection with her mind and spirit defiantly intact, but unable to walk.

To its shame (this would not happen today), Oxford withdrew its offer because of her disability. She studied at Bristol, and finally arrived at Oxford in the mid-1960s to begin a pioneering research career specialising in the physiology of smooth muscle. As tutor in physiological sciences at LMH she acted as mentor and friend to generations of doctors, psychologists and research scientists – and one science writer.

A disappearing number

Shane Shambhu (Ramanujan) and David Annen (Hardy)

Last night I went to see a live relay of Simon McBurnie’s A Disappearing Number in our local cinema, largely prompted by Miranda Cook (who plays Dorothy in Hidden Glory) enthusing about its recent London performance. I missed the Complicité production when it originally opened in 2007: having won numerous awards it’s been all over the world before its final tour in the UK this year.

I thought it was one of the best things I’d seen for ages. I loved Saskia Reeves’s performance – I saw some similiarities between the characters of Ruth and Dorothy Hodgkin, the combination of slight social diffidence with absolute command of and love for her subject, plus incredulous delight at falling in love, and using laughter to cover nervousness, embarrassment or even pain.

I thought the staging was breathtaking, creating so many moods and spaces with such economy. And I was surprised at how few people came on for the curtain call – somehow it felt like a much larger cast.

The story of Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematical genius who came to Cambridge in 1914 to work with G.H. Hardy,  is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Interweaving the historical narrative with modern characters was much more than a device, as McBurnie created moving parallels of love and loss as well as a means of explaining the maths in simple terms. I thought his courage in including complex content with quite a lot of exposition paid off, and not just because the performers were excellent.

I am lost in admiration at the way he wove together the themes of continuity and connection (the way he exploits the dramatic possibilities of the telephone is masterly)  , in a way that made the endings seem optimistic rather than tragic. The use of music (by Nitin Sawhney, dance and video gave physicality to an otherwise intellectual theme and increased the emotional impact.

I gather this was the last performance of the current run, but who knows when anyone might think of reviving it, so I’m so glad to have grabbed the last chance to see it.

Dorothy on tour

Miranda Cook as Dorothy Hodgkin in Hidden Glory

It’s taken a while, but we have finally managed to book five tour dates for Hidden Glory. They are:

SALFORD QUAYS, The Lowry Studio, M50 3AZ, 25 October, 7.00 pm, £8/£6, www.thelowry.com, 0843 208 6000

BRISTOL, The Wickham Theatre, BS8 1UP,  27 October, 7.30 pm, free but booking is essential, www.bristol.ac.uk/twilight-talks, 0117 331 8315

CAMBRIDGE, The Old Labs, Newnham College, CB3 9DF, 12-13 November, 7.00 pm (+ Sat mat),  £8/£6, www.wegottickets.com/f/p/1/2059

OTLEY, Otley Courthouse, LS21 3AN, 19 November, 7.30 pm, £7/£5, www.otleycourthouse.org.uk, 01943 467466

YORK, 41 Monkgate, YO31 7PB, 20 November, 7.00 pm, £8/£6, www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, 01904 623568

Please tell all your friends, and come along yourself!

More science on stage 1

Last Friday I went up to London to see a work-in-progress performance of The Nature of Thingsthe ‘other’ Dorothy Hodgkin play. I don’t regard it as competition as Esther Shanson’s work is so much more ambitious and complex than Hidden Glory. More than two years ago she set out to tell the stories of three women crystallographers – Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin – using dance, drama, music and both still and video projection. The result was a revelation, though still unfinished.

The Place, London’s leading centre for contemporary dance, has supported Esther’s production and it was packed for the free show with an eclectic mix of dance lovers, crystallographers, Dorothy’s relatives and colleagues, and curious members of the public. We saw the first act, which focuses mainly on Kathleen Lonsdale but introduces the other two women, and a video clip from the second act which uses gradually multiplying images of dancers performing to a fast jazz score to represent the three-dimensional structure of insulin.

I know I come to the subject with a lot of prior knowledge and interest, but I was riveted throughout. Esther and her company have developed a wonderfully touching script that fleshes out the relationships between Lonsdale, her mentor William Bragg and her husband Thomas. An altogether more spiky relationship characterises the pairing of a reincarnated Rosalind Franklin and James Watson as they review the history of structural molecular biology. Dorothy’s early, tentative steps in both science and love feature in this first act, but we will have to wait for the second for her ultimate triumph, the solution of insulin.

I’m less qualified to comment on the dance elements, but using dancers to represent the molecules that the three women studied brings out the personal relationships each had with her subject, and the sense of trying to pin down an elusive quarry. For DNA, the extraordinary aerialist Ilona Jäntti wove patterns with her body suspended between two ropes hung from above the stage.

We are promised the complete piece in 2011, and I for one can’t wait.