Through the wormhole

Molecular model of penicillin

Dorothy Hodgkin’s molecular model of penicillin.

English biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin (1910–1994) made seminal discoveries in X-ray crystallography, a way of finding out the atomic structure of a molecule. The technique works by shining an X-ray through a crystalline material such as salt, and photographing the pattern of spots that is created. By analyzing the pattern, Hodgkin could create a ‘map’ of the electrons from which the positions of the atoms in a crystal could be derived. She pushed the limits of X-ray analysis to determine the arrangement of atoms in complex molecules including drugs and proteins. She accomplished this almost always without computing technology—which didn’t become available until near the end of her career—to do the painstaking calculations required to make pictures of the electrons within a crystal.

She used the technique to solve the makeup of penicillin, a discovery that continues to save countless lives by enabling chemical synthesis of antibiotics. Next, she unraveled the structure of vitamin B-12, which led to mass production of the vitamin. Then, after more than 30 years studying insulin, Hodgkin and her colleagues decoded its complicated framework. This discovery was fundamental to helping researchers understand the biology of this vital hormone.

For her achievements, Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964, which, at the time, a headline in Britain’s The Daily Mail simply reported: “Oxford housewife wins Nobel.”