Friday Book: Gazing into the crystal

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The Independent Culture


THE REMARKABLE life of Dorothy Hodgkin - who died in 1994, aged 85 - suggests that there is, after all,"another way" to do science. Not that Dorothy would have welcomed the notion. She vehemently rejected any suggestion that her gender was an obstacle to her progress, says Georgina Ferry, and had a horror of the term "role model". All the same, there was something about the way she did science that was distinctly unusual.

As a pioneering female Fellow of the Royal Society, and the only British woman to win a Nobel Prize, her stature as one of this country's pre-eminent scientists is secure. A leading X-ray crystallographer, she helped to solve the structure of large, complex and biologically important molecules including penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. Yet she wore her fame lightly: throughout her long and prolific research career, she insisted that even the most junior of her colleagues call her simply Dorothy. She welcomed into her laboratory virtually anyone who wanted to work with her -Margaret Thatcher was briefly a student - and subsequently gave everyone full credit for their contributions. "Self-promotion was not part of her nature."

She survived from sheer merit, but only perhaps because she also had powerful allies, including the charismatic J D Bernal, famed for his science, his Marxism, and his sexual liaisons with female colleagues. Ferry reveals that Dorothy, long believed to be one of the few exceptions, also had a love affair with Bernal, who supervised her doctoral work in Cambridge. With apparent reluctance, she broke off the relationship when she moved back to Oxford and met her husband-to-be, Thomas Hodgkin, but Bernal remained a lifelong friend and source of intellectual support.

But Ferry does not dwell on Dorothy's private life. Indeed, we are not told until the very end that Dorothy's beloved husband had repeated affairs throughout their marriage, culminating in a long-lasting and open liaison with his first love. Adopting a style that Dorothy would have favoured, Ferry gives pride of place to the science, explaining step by step the scientific challenges confronting Dorothy and how she overcame them.

Her last conquest was the insulin molecule, finally described down to the last atom when Dorothy was 78. Dorothy always reckoned that her first step towards this goal - her first fuzzy X-ray of an insulin crystal in 1935 - was probably the most exciting moment of her life.

There is little that is psychologically probing here, but perhaps that is the point; perhaps Dorothy was most herself when she was immersed in her data, mentally conjuring up a molecule in three dimensions. During the dinner parties organised by her gregarious husband, Dorothy was wont to "sit quietly with a faraway look in her eyes, her mind on the latest structure problem".

The product of unusual parents who were mostly absent, pursuing amateur archaeological interests in the Middle East, Dorothy, nee Crowfoot, spent great chunks of her childhood either looking after her younger sisters or absorbed in chemical experiments in her attic laboratory. A decidedly "good girl", she remembers the trauma of having spilt concentrated nitric acid on her silk frock, in a moment snatched between church and Sunday lunch. Thankfully her mother was reassuring, and ready with a disguising frill. At Oxford, Dorothy worked until she dropped, forgetting to eat. Even in her late 30s, after three children, and at 5'5", she weighed only seven and a half stones.

Her ability to focus on her work to the exclusion of everything else - made possible in part by live-in domestic help - was perhaps her greatest intellectual asset. Her husband, too, was a distraction largely absent, working away from Oxford throughout most of their marriage. Though outwardly chaotic, her laboratory became a congenial place to work. "Dorothy would drift vaguely through the chaos, with a quiet word here and there, humming old hymn tunes to herself."

"Dorothy's management style was unlike anything her colleagues had previously experienced," Ferry recounts. "She never told anyone what to do, but would ask questions such as `Don't you think it might be interesting to try such and such?'" Gradually, newcomers twigged that these mild suggestions were hot research tips. The softly-softly approach succeeded; most colleagues "claim to have worked harder and more effectively there than at any other time".

Still, wasn't it hell being Dorothy in those early days in Oxford? Colleagues remember her then as "very quiet, very ladylike and very able". Another recalls that her most striking quality was her unobtrusiveness. Yet another said that Dorothy always looked "as if she was just getting over a good cry". In a rare, cryptic aside, her biographer comments, "she may have had good reason".