Tag Archives: Dorothy Hodgkin

Women in Science in the Archives: A seminar in pictures

Women in science and, indeed, scientists in general, are still underrepresented in the Bodleian’s archives, at least compared to our vast collections of political and literary papers. At the same time, scientists are often not aware of the ‘historical’ dimension of their work, the potential archival value of their lab notes, research proposals, publication drafts, professional and personal correspondence, CVs, funding applications, articles, photos, committee minutes, diaries … and the many other records they produce during their careers.

The Women in Science in the Archives Seminar, which took place at the Bodleian’s Weston Library on Thursday 8 September, was an attempt to bridge this archives / science divide — but first and foremost, it was a day of celebrating the achievements of historical female scientists in what used to be almost exclusively male-dominated disciplines, and exploring how archives can give a voice to those who are no longer able to speak for themselves. It was also an opportunity to invite today’s women of science into the archives, to discuss the lives and careers of female scientists in the early 21st century,  which kind of challenges they (still!) face, and not least, how these experiences can be preserved in the archives of the future.

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Event: Women in Science in the Archives, 8 September 2016

As part of the FitzGerald cataloguing project, we are organising an event around women in science in the archives, to take place on Thursday 8 September, at the Weston Library (Lecture Theatre) from 9.00am to 1.00 pm.

The half-day seminar will look at women’s engagement with science in the past through the Bodleian’s historical archives, trace the changing nature of their role, discuss the experiences of female scientists in the 21st century, and explore the challenges of preserving their archives in the future.

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Women in science, 1780-2016

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Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel Prize – 50 years on

This year it’s 50 years since Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, ‘for her determinations by x-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances’. She is still the only British female scientist to have won a Nobel Prize.

The Bodleian recently acquired a small but significant addition to the Dorothy Hodgkin papers from her daughter, Liz. They give a unique insight into the excitement surrounding the award of the prize. At the time Liz was teaching at a school in Zambia and as letters could take a week or longer to arrive, her parents sent a telegram with the good news. To keep costs down, they sent the shortest possible message, ‘Dorothy nobel chemistry’!

MS. Eng. c. 8262, fol. 134

MS. Eng. c. 8262, fol. 134

In fact, Dorothy was also abroad at the time, visiting her husband in Ghana, where he was working. Following the telegram she sent a longer letter to Liz, describing how she had heard the news and how the small local post office was so overwhelmed with congratulatory telegrams, that she was asked to come and collect them herself.

The first cable came in from John Kendrew, Francis Crick & Fred Sanger - and then the girl at the other end said "There are too many here for us to telephone them all - they will block our lines. Come & fetch them, please". So we picked them up the next morning - & found a lovely one from the lab saying "Thrilled to have telephone call from Stockholm".

MS. Eng. c. 8262, fol. 133
The first cable came in from John Kendrew, Francis Crick & Fred Sanger – and then the girl at the other end said “There are too many here for us to telephone them all – they will block our lines. Come & fetch them, please”. So we picked them up the next morning – & found a lovely one from the lab saying “Thrilled to have telephone call from Stockholm”.

The most eminent men in science were lining up to congratulate her, and of course the telephone call from Stockholm was from the Nobel Prize committee, where Dorothy would go later that year to collect her prize.

This collection of letters has now been catalogued and is available to researchers in the Special Collections Reading Room at the Bodleian Library.

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.

Women In Science – London Metropolitan Archives Conference

The Saving Oxford Medicine project team have been acquiring, preserving and cataloguing the archives of Oxford-based scientists such as Lady Julia Bodmer, Edith Bülbring, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ida Mann and Mary Somerville. Naturally we were excited to attend the Women in Science event hosted by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) on 8 March 2013. This event explored the lives and varied contributions of women to scientific progress. And what better day to celebrate pioneering women in science than on International Women’s Day! The event also proved a great complement to the recent global Wikipedia Editathon we attended during Open Access Week in Oxford. This was held to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day and the many, often overlooked contributions made by female scientists.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Howard Benge and Jan Pimblett from the LMA kicked off the day and introduced us to some of the work they have been carrying out to identify science-related material within the millions of documents held in the Archive.

We then started to think about the kinds of scientific work women have been involved in historically, and how we can uncover their work. Importantly, as Howard suggested, there is still a prevailing attitude that women shun the study of science, which makes determining the impact of female scientists problematic (we should also remember that institutions like the Royal Society closed their doors to women as Fellows until 1945, and as such makes female scientists harder to unearth). A thread running through the day with other speakers was that to discover the contributions of female scientists, we must broaden our conceptual net. For example, rather than focusing on ‘pure science’ as such, we should embrace the application of science in society. For instance, the LMA holds collections that relate to food science (not generally regarded as a science per se until modern times), such as freezing and crystallisation, and the Lyons collection illsutrates the development of techniques relating to ice cream.

With this wider framework of applied science in mind, Rebekah Higgitt, Curator and historian of science at Royal Observatory Greenwich and National Maritime Museum then continued the theme, and discussed the definition of ‘someone who does science’ (you can read Rebeka’s Guardian blog here). Rebekah emphasised the different kinds of scientific research and work undertaken by women, and some examples of influential female scientists were highlighted. We heard about Maria Merian, the German artist-naturalist; instrument maker Janet Taylor; publisher, teacher and astronomer Margaret Bryan; Mary Edwards, the ‘human computer’ and Mary Annings, the palaeontologist who ran a fossil shop. All of the above women contributed to science on a daily basis, working close to their homes. It was also noted that from the early twentieth century, ‘new’ science gave women more opportunities to make their name, which had previously been difficult in the traditional fields of physics, astronomy and botany. Crystallographers such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin are notable examples here, as is the geneticist Julia Bodmer.

Bridget Howlett then gave an engaging presentation on the LMA collections relating to Florence Nightingale. This includes correspondence from the Crimean War, and training records of the nursing school Nightingale established at St. Thomas’ Hospital. Bridget suggested that although Nightingale is often thought of as ‘anti-science’ for her rejection of the germ theory, she nevertheless supported women’s education and women’s participation in medicine and science. Moreover, not only are her contributions to professional nursing notable, she was a talented statistician and devised a system of accounts for the army during the war. Nightingale also promoted the education of sanitary science and campaigned strongly for the 1867 Metropolitan Poor Act to ensure the provision of infirmaries for sick paupers. As such, Florence Nightingale should without doubt be celebrated as a pioneering woman in science. Here at the Bodleian we hold correspondence from Nightingale in some of our collections.

Jan Pimblett then explained how the LMA uses the archives in public engagement, after which we were given the opportunity to view some original documents from collections that represent influential women in science. A personal favourite was the letter illustrated below from the physician and feminist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. As the founder of The New Hospital for Women (the first hospital staffed by women), Anderson was the first woman to train and qualify as a doctor in Britain; although as a woman, she battled to be accepted to train for her license to practice as a doctor. She gained much of her training through private tuition.

Letter from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1863

In the letter, Anderson asks a Dr. Hastings to accept her for private instruction in anatomy, and the difficulties she faced are evident. She eventually qualified through the Society of Apothecaries; two years later the Society changed its rules and barred women from taking the exam.

In keeping with the theme of the day and women’s varied and perhaps unlikely or underestimated contributions to science, Tom Richards then discussed his fascinating research on Daphne Oram. Oram invented the early digital workstation known as the Oramics Machine, which enabled her to draw sounds. Her scientific technique and invention was a key musical development, helping to pave the way for modern electronic music. Oram’s work also included co-founding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. Daphne Oram’s archive is currently held at Goldsmiths University of London Special Collections.

Anne Locker was the last speaker of the day, and she gave a presentation on early women engineers and scientists whose records are held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) Archives. The IET collection represents women from the early twentieth century. During the First World War, women began to participate in engineering jobs and the IET Archive holds the records of electrical engineer Dame Caroline Haslett and reflect her involvement with the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). Haslett was the first Secretary of the Engineering Society and founder and editor of the journal The Woman Engineer. We also heard about the feminist Hertha Ayrton, the first woman to grace the IET. Ayrton worked on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. The Archive also holds the records of IET Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Laverick, who was the first female Deputy Secretary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Like many of the scientists we heard about throughout the day, Laverick was particularly interested in education, and she worked hard to promote engineering as a profession.

Like others had commented on during the day, Anne also emphasised that even though there were a large number of women working in engineering and technology in the earlier period, they are under-represented, and even though they are documented in records, we still don’t know about many of them.

These are just a sample of the many women in science we heard about during the day, and the LMA staff and other speakers provided some thought-provoking and lively discussions about how women have contributed their ideas and work to science, some well-known, others more obscure. Further work in archives is likely to reveal that women played a more prominent role in scientific enterprises than has previously been recognised. It was great to make links with our Saving Oxford Medicine initiative at the Bodleian, and also hear about the work others are doing in a similar field. We are grateful to LMA for the effort they put into the day, and look forward to similar future events.

Hodgkin Archive

Hodgkin archive‘Miss Crowfoot is one of the most interesting undergraduates who have been in the College whilst I have been Prinicipal. Her mind is both mature and imaginative. Her interests are so varied that it is extraordinary that she should be able to keep her special work at so consistently high a level. She has a real passion for science, has studied crystallography and played at astronomy alongside her own subject…Miss Crowfoot … has a nature of great charm and sincerity, with a special flavour which is very much her own. I believe that all my colleagues would agree with me in thinking it waste of a rare personality if Miss Crowfoot does not follow her strong natural bent for research beyond the bounds of a degree examination’

This glowing recommendation from Margery Fry, the Principal of Somerville College was written in March 1931, as Dorothy Crowfoot (later Hodgkin) came towards the end of the third year of her chemistry degree at Oxford. As suggested she pursued a research career and went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for her work on the determination of the structure of biochemical substances such as penicillin and vitamin B12.

Dorothy Hodgkin donated her archive to the Bodleian Library in 1994. On-going work over many months by the Saving Oxford Medicine team, means that the catalogue of the papers is now available directly from the Bodleian Library’s website, making it easier for researchers to access and search:

Full Bodleian shelfmarks have been added to the catalogue for the first time, which will streamline the ordering of manuscripts. We hope that the enhanced catalogue will increase research use of the Hodgkin papers.

Dorothy Hodgkin and Richard Doll: New Elizabethans

Oxford scientists Dorothy Hodgkin and Richard Doll are in Radio 4’s Diamond Jubilee list of 60 ‘New Elizabethans’, individuals who have had a major influence on life in the UK since the Queen’s accession in 1952.
Structure of Vitamin B12
Structure of Vitamin B12

Dorothy Hodgkin was a pioneer of X-ray crystallography, discovering the structure of penicillin, Vitamin B12 and insulin. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work on Vitamin B12. Her papers and correspondence were donated to the Bodleian Library by Professor Hodgkin and are available for research. The Hodgkin family later added to this substantial biographical and personal material. Epidemiologist and Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford from 1969 to 1979, Richard Doll, along with Austin Bradford Hill, established the link between smoking and lung cancer.

James Naughtie will present a series of programmes, each devoted to one of the ‘New Elizabethans’, which runs from 11 June to 7 September. Dorothy Hodgkin will be featured on Tuesday 26 June at 12.45pm, and Richard Doll on Thursday 28 June, also at 12.45pm.


Dorothy Hodgkin – Additional Papers Online

The catalogue of the additional papers of Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), chemist and x-ray crystallographer, has been made available online for the first time. The papers were catalogued by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists in 2004 but the paper catalogue was only available to researchers in the Special Collections Reading Room at the Bodleian Library. As part of the ‘Saving Oxford Medicine’ project, the catalogue has now been converted into an xml file and mounted online, making it much more accessible to researchers.

Hodgkin additional papers
Dorothy Hodgkin

The additional papers cover all aspects of Hodgkin’s life but are particularly rich in biographical material and family correspondence, and give an insight into her wide-ranging interests. There is extensive correspondence with her husband, Thomas, who was often absent from the family home, due to his work commitments. Hodgkin aimed to write to him every day, despite her heavy workload and busy family life and the letters give a personal view of her scientific work, her political interests and her domestic life.

The catalogue can now be viewed online at:

Video interviews with Dorothy Hodgkin can be viewed online through the Web of Stories website: http://www.webofstories.com/play/17310?srId=223575&o=S

Arthur Duncan Gardner and penicillin research at Oxford

Arthur Duncan Gardner (1884-1978), bacteriologist, and Regius Professor from 1948 to 1954, was a member of the Oxford team led by Professor Howard Florey that isolated penicillin, demonstrated its effectiveness, and further developed the drug during the Second World War. Unfortunately, we have no information so far on the whereabouts of his archive.

The Bodleian Library holds the papers of Sir Edward Abraham, biochemist, who also worked alongside Florey, and who determined the molecular structure of penicillin, and those of another collaborator, the chemist, Dorothy Hodgkin, who finally confirmed that structure by X-ray crystallography in 1945.