Yesterday 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.According to its chair, Robert Evans, the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board wondered whether, after a Nobel medal, a blue plaque might not be superfluous. I’m glad they decided to go ahead anyway. Dorothy has never been a household name, and it is only fitting that she should join the likes of Ronnie Barker, Isaiah Berlin and Jane Burden (‘Pre-Raphaelite Muse’) among Oxford citizens memorialised in this way.
Contemporary crystallographer Elspeth Garman gave a wonderful talk, illustrating the principles of Dorothy’s life’s work with ingenious analogies and a few props. A non-scientific family member – of whom a large crowd had gathered for the ceremony, including many former inhabitants of the house – remarked that it was the first time she had really understood what crystallography was all about.
The house holds many memories for Dorothy’s children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. She moved in with her three children in 1957, together with her sister Joan who had five. Thomas Hodgkin had developed a passionate interest in Africa and was often away: it was his observation that ‘Dorothy needs a wife’ that led to the house-sharing arrangement (Joan was divorced). Children came and went at all hours, and there was as likely to be a Nobel prizewinner at dinner as an African politician or the the local organisers of the CND’s youth branch. The older children set up a chemistry lab in the attic, encouraged by Dorothy who had done the same when she was their age.
It was here that the Nobel telegram arrived in October 1964, offering Dorothy the prize for chemistry. She was in Ghana at the time with Thomas. Brought up in a regime of frugality and thrift, Dorothy’s niece Jill packed up the telegram along with all the letters of congratulation and sent them on to Ghana – by sea mail. They arrived about three months later, long after the ceremony had taken place.