Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry - review by Edwina Currie

Edwina Currie

Who’s Heard Of Her

Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life


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Had Dorothy Hodgkin been a man, she would have been the subject of a spate of full-length hagiographies by now: Tariq Ali would have weighed in with ‘Pugwash Warrior: Fighter for Peace’; Professor Steve Jones might have contributed ‘Biological Magic: The Story of the Quest for Proteins’; Roy Jenkins’s pen portrait would have been entitled ‘Oxford Science and the Judgement of History’. Like Alexander Fleming’s and Francis Crick’s, hers would be a household name.

This excellent and compelling book was rejected by six publishers on the grounds that nobody had heard of Dorothy – presumably, to their shame, including editorial staff in those same houses. Yet Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was not merely a great scientist, she was one of the most remarkable figures of our century. Her Nobel Prize was announced as I headed for Oxford in autumn 1964 for my entrance interviews. The women chemists were in a shell-shocked tizz. To be there at such a glorious time was to spin at the centre of the known universe. To be awarded a chemistry scholarship – as I was – seemed like very heaven. It was not until I went up the following year and attended lectures that it dawned on me that I didn’t understand a word. I gave up, and changed subjects to PPE.

Twenty years before, Margaret Thatcher’s stamina had showed, as she completed her degree under Dorothy’s supervision. Her reward was to be gently harangued, over lunch at Chequers, on nuclear disarmament. A scrap of paper in the Hodgkin archive headed ‘Notes for Margaret’ begins, ‘Object: to rethink relations with the Soviet Union on the basis that friendship was possible and would be to everyone’s advantage.’ Ferry describes the 1987 Pugwash visit to Moscow, following which Dorothy wrote in hopeful terms to the Prime Minister; soon after, Thatcher welcomed Gorbachev to Britain. Although she denies that Dorothy’s prodding had anything to do with her own softened attitude, a delegation from the USSR Academy of Science received at 10 Downing street in 1988 noticed that a portrait of Dorothy hung on the wall above Margaret Thatcher’s desk.

Dorothy (as she was universally called) will, however, be chiefly remembered for her ground-breaking research on the structure of proteins. This was the first step to understanding their mysterious operation, and opened up the possibility of synthetic derivatives of direct value to mankind. The scale and ambition of her work, her ingenuity and vast background knowledge, and the long-term persistence required, are breathtaking. Some of the problems – the huge, complex insulin molecule, for example, with a molecular weight of over 37,000 – could not properly be resolved until the advent of computers; she completed that analysis thirty years after she began. One can’t avoid a nagging feeling, none the less, that Hodgkin was robbed, repeatedly. She should have received the Nobel Prize in 1945 for her analysis of penicillin; J D Bernal, sitting with her on the steps of the Royal Society as she excitedly described her findings, told her she would. At that time, he was not even a Fellow of the Society; Ferry takes the view that Dorothy did quite well to be elected an FRS at the age of thirty-six, forgetting perhaps that Darwin was in at twenty-nine, long before The Origin of Species.

Her outstanding paper on Vitamin B12 was first published in 1956; from then onwards her name was put forward repeatedly, for chemistry, physics and medicine – the nominations themselves showed a recognition of Dorothy’s reach. She deserved it three times over for insulin. She was never a professor in her own university, and survived most of the time on outside research grants – the subject of much adverse comment from the local scientific establishment. Dorothy herself felt that her sex had never hindered her work. But then, Dorothy was a rather unworldly creature, as this biography endearingly demonstrates. The year she failed to get her Readership (it went to ‘Tiny’ Powell, who was described by one research colleague as being ‘dragged along by Dorothy like Pooh Bear, bump, bump, bump, bump’), Ferry claims misogyny could not have been in play since Ida Mann was awarded the Chair in Ophthalmology. But what about tokenism? Ferry is probably too young to remember, but the argument ‘we have one woman, that’s enough’ was often used to justify the elevation of more clubbable though mediocre men. The informal systems of advancement were equally closed to her. Her early papers were read to the Alembic Club by her supervisor; when she tried to gate-crash a session she was carried out bodily. Powell, meanwhile, promoted to Professor, spent his lunchtimes in the all-male bar of the King’s Arms: what plotting went on, as vacancies occurred? When such comments as ‘She looks astonishingly like Jeanette MacDonald’ and ‘If a woman FRS can have three children, anyone might do anything’ are recorded as friendly, one can’t help wondering about the others.

Georgina Ferry is not a scientist, and the writing is all the better for that. The descriptions of Dorothy’s quests read like a detective novel; her politics, her family – including her strange husband, who was in love with someone else for much of his life – and her impulsive nature (like many others, she was also J D Bernal’s lover) are handled with stylish sensitivity. This is Ferry’s first book and, like its subject, it will be a hard act to follow.

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