Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin

The papers of Dorothy Hodgkin held at the Bodleian Library reveal a remarkable relationship between two women at the top of their fields: a Nobel prize winning scientist and a British Prime Minister, whose divergent political views (Hodgkin was a lifelong communist sympathiser) never stood in the way of frank dialogue and mutual admiration.

Margaret Roberts read Chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, 1943-1947, choosing to do her Part II Chemistry under Hodgkin, who had just achieved scientific recognition for her discovery of the structure of penicillin. Under Hodgkin’s supervision, Roberts carried out x-ray crystallographic analysis of Gramicidin S, an antibiotic peptide. Hodgkin recalls, ‘She came up to Somerville just before the end of the war and chose to do her Part II Chemistry with me. I must say I was very pleased with her’, only regretting that the young student did not have ‘the pleasure and experience of actually solving a structure’. In fact the structure of Gramicidin S was to prove elusive for many years.

Margaret Roberts’s career as a chemist was short-lived but her political rise was extraordinary. A draft letter in the archive from Hodgkin to Thatcher, congratulates her on becoming Prime Minister, ‘Yours is a very remarkable achievement, to be the first woman prime minister of this country and also the first scientist. You have wonderful opportunities.’ Although the letter continues rather cryptically, ‘I keep on so hoping that good may come of it but also so fearing quite otherwise.’ Perhaps this was due to their very different political views. Hodgkin was a pacifist, a socialist and an admirer of communism. She travelled widely, engaging with the international crystallographic community and she had friends across the Cold War divide. She was devoted to the peaceful resolution of conflicts and to nuclear disarmament, and actively promoted dialogue between East and West.

During the 1980s there was a cordial and well-informed correspondence between the two women, as she sought to persuade the Prime Minister of the necessity of banning chemical weapons and encouraged her to believe that the Soviets were close to an agreement on the international verification of chemical disarmament.

 

Manuscript note by Hodgkin, ‘Notes for Margaret: Object – to rethink relations with the Soviet Union on the basis that friendship is possible & would be to everyone’s advantage – trade – science – art – the lot’

 

In a letter to Tony Epstein, Hodgkin confessed, ‘I find myself worried about her – she got stuck with these Tory principles when young but she can occasionally be persuaded that different courses should be adopted’. She seems to have been vindicated by Thatcher’s declaration that Gorbachev was a man she could do business with, and by the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow in 1987. Afterwards Hodgkin wrote, ‘Long ago I meant to write to say how glad I was about your progress in Moscow, especially with Gorbachev. I knew the scientists would enjoy your coming and only hoped you would like them too.’ In return, Thatcher sent her old tutor, six colour photographs of her meetings with the Russian scientists in Moscow.
Margaret Thatcher with Russian scientists in Moscow, 1987.

Hodgkin was delighted with the thaw in relations but took the opportunity to press Thatcher on another subject close to her heart – the cuts to student numbers and the reduction of the student grant, ‘I do feel your talks with Gorbachev have totally changed the East-West confrontation and you could now drop modernization of nuclear weapons and spend the money & the scientists brains on the environment – and education – especially welcoming good young teachers and providing finance for students.’ An earlier response by Thatcher on the issue, shows how cordial their relationship was.

 

Letter from Thatcher to Hodgkin, 1983, ‘I do so much value your advice and guidance’.

 

It’s a tribute to the personalities of these two remarkable women that they were able to maintain a lifelong friendship across such an enormous personal, political divide. The papers are available for consulation in the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections Reading Room.

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