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”

RIP Tony Broad – creator of Nobel-prizewinning X-ray tube

I’ve just been told by the writer Henry Nicholls, who interviewed him in 2009, that the engineer Tony Broad died last week at the age of 93. It is one of my sins of omission as a writer that I did not interview Broad myself when I undertook my research for  Max Perutz and the Secret of Life, though I did acknowledge his critical role in the solution of the first protein structures. Continue reading “RIP Tony Broad – creator of Nobel-prizewinning X-ray tube”

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.

Animating Dorothy

Miranda Cook as Dorothy Hodgkin ((c)Mark Brome Photographer)

My long absence from the blogosphere is largely due to Dorothy Hodgkin’s centenary, which fell on 12 May 2010 (belated birthday wishes, Dorothy).

For a couple of years I had  been sending gentle prompts to various quarters suggesting that something should be done to mark the occasion, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Britain’s only female Nobel-prizewinning scientist. Jim Kennedy, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History responded by choosing that date to unveil a bust of Dorothy in the Museum, a long-cherished project that he had managed to pull off with support from the EPA Cephalosporin Fund.

Inspired by a one-woman show about Barbara McLintock, The Longing to Understand by Jane Cox, I offered to write a show about Hodgkin, Hidden Glory,  to be performed on the evening of the unveiling. On a scarily short timescale the project came to fruition as a professional show with a wonderful actress, Miranda Cook, and director, Abbey Wright, supported by a young creative team of designer Florence McHugh, lighting designer and production manager Andy Reader, and sound designer Chris Barlow.

Because my promptings had led the Royal Society to hold a commemorative day on 12 May, the Museum event took place on 10 May 2010. Dorothy’s sister Diana, 92, flew all the way from Canada to be there and to unveil the bust; all three of her daughters were also there, as were Dorothy’s daughter Liz Hodgkin and numerous other family and friends. We also invited lots of Oxford chemists and molecular biologists who had known Dorothy. ‘Uncanny’ was the verdict of one of them on Miranda’s performance, which was moving and quietly amusing by turns as it revealed the essential integrity of Dorothy’s scientific and personal lives.

We’re all very proud to have been involved in the project, and hope it can move on to new venues (we did a second performance at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford a few days later); I will post here as soon as we have some dates.

I’m now more convinced than ever that theatre is a great way to introduce audiences to science and scientists, giving them an insight into the scientific life that they will never get either from books or from ‘public engagement’ talks and demonstrations.

First woman chemist since Dorothy!

No sooner have I bewailed the Nobel Committee’s neglect of female physical scientists than they give the Chemistry prize to Israeli scientist Ada Yonath! She is the first woman chemist to receive it since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964, and the fourth ever. Her award, shared with Venki Ramakrishnan from the LMB in Cambridge and Thomas Steitz from Yale, is for discovering the three-dimensional structure of ribosomes, the intracellular machines that construct protein from RNA templates.

And she is another X-ray crystallographer.

Nobel women

What great news that Elizabeth Blackburn and her former student Carol Greider have shared the 2009 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine. Together with Jack Szostak, who also shares the prize, they discovered that DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres, protect the chromosome from degradation every time the cell makes new copies of its DNA. Working with Blackburn, Greider also discovered the enzyme telomerase that supports the reconstruction of the telomeres.

Their success brings the total number of  times a woman has been awarded a science Nobel to fifteen. Two of those occasions involved the same woman, Marie Curie, who won both the Chemistry and Physics prizes. Ten of the prizes were for Physiology or Medicine, just five for Physics or Chemistry. There have been just three for Chemistry, one of them won by Dorothy Hodgkin.

It was curiosity about Hodgkin’s tremendous achievement – she remains the only British woman ever to have won a science Nobel – that got me started writing about scientist’s lives. How did she do it? Parents with high intellectual expectations of their daughters, a women-only college at Oxford, a husband who didn’t make her stop working, cheap childcare,  supportive and liberal-minded male colleagues, a new and rapidly-advancing field, and above all her own formidable skills as a chemist and crystallographer – all these played a part.

Crystallography is often said to be a field in which women excel. If so (one thinks of Kathleen Lonsdale, Rosalind Franklin, Judith Howard, Louise Johnson and many others as well as Hodgkin), it may have to do with a ‘founder’s effect’ caused by a small number of labs from which women who were well supported went on to found their own, equally female-friendly labs. According to Catherine Brady’s excellent biography of Blackburn, the  same is true of telomere research. Both Blackburn and Greider are mothers, and both run their labs, to the benefit of both men and women, with a proper respect for the balance of work and home life.

The progress of women to the highest echelons of science is still painfully slow. Hodgkin, Blackburn and Greider show that it can be done, and without compromising family life.