OSB archive
OSB archive

Hodgkin gets stamp of approval

Pete Wilton

It's great to see that Oxford's Dorothy Hodgkin is honoured in a new set of Royal Mail stamps celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society.

The stamp celebrates advances in X-ray crystallography she made at Oxford University: she determined the molecular structures of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin.

In 1964 she received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, becoming the only British woman scientist to win a Nobel so far.

Royal Mail say the idea was to choose ten significant scientific RS figures from the last 350 years, with one figure representing each 35-year period. Each stamp includes a portrait and imagery relevant to the scientist's greatest achievement.

Hodgkin is the only woman in an illustrious line-up that includes Isaac Newton, Ernest Rutherford, and Edward Jenner. You can find out more about how the stamps were put together in this BBC Online audio slideshow.

For her undergraduate degree Hodgkin studied chemistry at Somerville College and, after doing doctoral studies at Cambridge, she returned to Oxford in 1934 as a fellow at Somerville and set up her X-ray equipment in a shared laboratory in a basement corner of the University Museum. She would continue her research and teaching work at Oxford for the next 43 years.

Her crystallography work enabled her to deduce the structure of ever-larger and more complex molecules. One of her greatest achievements was, with the help of one of the first electronic computers, solving the 100-atom structure of the vitamin B12 in 1957, a feat Lawrence Bragg likened to ‘breaking the sound barrier’.

Georgina Ferry, the author of the definitive biography of Hodgkin, writes: 'In the case of each of the three projects for which she is best known - penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin - Dorothy pushed the boundaries of what was possible with the techniques available.'

'Her distinction lay not in developing new approaches, but in a remarkable ability to envisage possibilities in three-dimensional structures, grounded in a profound understanding of the underlying chemistry.'

'While she did not consider it part of her role to explore the function of the molecules she studied, her results made it possible for others to increase their understanding of their biosynthesis and chemical interactions, and hence to develop improved therapies for disease.'

In 1976 Hodgkin became the first woman to receive the Royal Society's most prestigious award, the Copley medal.

Special thanks: Oxford DNB