DOROTHY HODGKIN (1910 - 1994) [et al]. X-ray Crystallographic Evidence on the Structure of Vitamin B12. (Nature 1954, 174, 1169-1171.)

Dorothy Mary Crowfoot was born in Cairo, Egypt, of English parents. She was only the third woman to achieve a first-class honors degree in chemistry from Oxford. While there, she satisfied the requirement to carry out an undergraduate research project by using X-rays to determine the structures of certain organothallium salts. In 1932 Crowfoot moved to the Department of Mineralogy at Cambridge University, where she carried out a Ph.D. project on the X-ray diffraction analysis of sterols (a class of biomolecules of which cholesterol is the most familiar). In her last few months at Cambridge, her involvement in measuring the X-ray diffraction pattern of the enzyme pepsin profoundly influenced her subsequent career.

When Crowfoot returned to Oxford in September 1934, she set up an X-ray laboratory. During this period, she married and changed her name to Hodgkin. One of her first research projects at Oxford was a tour de force: in a massive effort, she was able to determine the locations of all twenty-seven carbon atoms in a cholesterol derivative; this achievement represented the first three-dimensional analysis of a complex organic molecule. During World War II, Hodgkin's even more impressive determination of the surprising structure of penicillin was not only important to efforts to manufacture this important antibiotic, it also demonstrated beyond doubt that X-ray crystallography was the definitive technique for the structural analysis of organic molecules.

Vitamin B12 had been discovered as a cure for pernicious anemia in 1926, but its large size - approximately one hundred atoms, not counting hydrogen - presented an unprecedented challenge for X-ray crystallography. Beginning in the late 1940s, Hodgkin used both analog and, later, digital computers to attack the problem of determining the structure of vitamin B12; even so, the effort would take nearly ten years. The first results on the structure of vitamin B12, published in Nature in 1954, represented a giant step forward for X-ray crystallography. Hodgkin's last great scientific achievement was her determination of the structure of the hormone insulin, the final results of which were published when she was 78.

Hodgkin's work, which required profound insights into chemistry and crystallography, provided unambiguous structural information about organic molecules too complex for more traditional and indirect methods of analysis.

Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008, v21, p333-339.

Guy Dodson, "Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin O.M. 12 May 1910 - 29 July 1994", "Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society"  200248, 179-219.

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