OSB archive
OSB archive

Playing Dorothy

Pete Wilton

To help mark the centenary of Dorothy Hodgkin's birth a special play will be performed next week at Oxford University's Lady Margaret Hall.

The play, 'Hidden Glory: Dorothy Hodgkin in her own words', is a one-woman show starring Miranda Cook and written by Georgina Ferry, Writer in Residence at OUMNH and Hodgkin's biographer. I asked Georgina about Hodgkin, her achievements and bringing an Oxford legend to life:

OxSciBlog: Why is Dorothy Hodgkin such an important figure?
Georgina Ferry: Dorothy Hodgkin is the only British woman to have won a science Nobel prize. Only 15 women have ever won the prize for physics, chemistry or medicine. By any standards that makes her exceptional. Her significance as a scientist lies in her great skill in pioneering the technique of X-ray crystallography to study the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in biological molecules. Today, using modern equipment that is many times more powerful, fast and accurate than was available in her time, studies of molecular structure underpin much of biomedical science.

OSB: What were her key achievements at Oxford?
GF: For the first two decades of her career at Oxford, Dorothy's X-ray lab was a basement in the corner of the University Museum of Natural History. There she resolved a debate between the organic chemists about the structure of penicillin, a discovery that contributed to the later development of other antibiotics. She went on to solve the structure of Vitamin B12, which prevents pernicious anaemia. Later she moved with her group to laboratories elsewhere in Oxford's Science Area, and completed her life's work - solving the structure of the protein insulin, which controls sugar in the bloodstream - in 1969.

OSB: Why did you decide to write a play about her?
GF: The Oxford University Museum of Natural History was planning to celebrate Dorothy's centenary this year by unveiling a bust of her in its court, alongside the statues of Newton, Darwin, Galileo and all the other great men of science. I thought it would make the evening more of an event if there were some kind of performance to accompany the unveiling, and that a play with Dorothy as the central character would bring her to life as nothing else could. I'm thrilled that the Museum, with help from the EPA Cephalosporin Fund and Diamond Light Source, decided to support the project.

OSB: What was the most difficult aspect of trying to tell her story?
GF: I wrote Dorothy's biography some years ago, which ran to some 400 pages (and could have been twice as long if I had used all the material available). But I knew that a one-woman show could not be longer than about 40 minutes. So the challenge was to select what to include, making sure there was enough to get across her character and her passion for solving scientific problems, but not so much that people would get bogged down in the detail.

OSB: What lessons can today's scientists learn from her life?
GF: Dorothy grew up believing that it was important to try and make a difference, whatever your chosen field. She was extremely determined without ever being aggressive; she was very good at finding the right people to ask for help, and was never shy about doing it; she was always supportive to her junior colleagues but expected them to stand on their own two feet. She was never motivated by competition with others, only by the challenge of solving nature's secrets.

'Hidden Glory: Dorothy Hodgkin in her own words'  will be performed at the Simpkins Lee Theatre, Lady Margaret Hall on Thursday 13 May at 7:30pm. Tickets are available here.