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.


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