Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on penicillin


This Treasure is paired with: Micrographia (Under the microscope)

Nearly 300 years after Hooke, Hodgkin employed X-ray crystallography to determine the chemical structure (the arrangement of atoms and bonds) of minute biochemical substances. She records her first awareness of penicillin in a letter to her husband Thomas, and resolved its structure with electron density maps. She remains the only British female scientist to have been awarded a Nobel Prize, for her work on substances including penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12.

Transcript of letter to husband, November 1941 (not pictured – MS. Eng. c.7934/3)

Darling Thomas,

I’ve just come back from visiting Chain & now it’s 10.30 pm. I’m feeling disgustingly cheerful too as a result of my visit.

The main purpose of Chain I may say is that he works on penicillin – you may remember the stuff Hugo was talking about in the summer that is so active anti streptococci & staphylococci that it almost brings people back from the dead. Apparently it hasn’t yet been crystallised after all – both Chain & Powell thought they’d got crystals of it about the time we went on our holiday but both were mistaken & so far all attempts have failed. I found myself irresistibly drawn to follow Hugo’s advice & “inject myself into the situation”. Chain seemed quite keen to let me have some stuff to try to crystallise and I’d simply love to try. Though when I shall have the time goodness knows – perhaps after term? And of course Chain may draw back when it comes to the point. Or the other gang – Baker, Powell, may have got on further than Chain thinks.

Wigg didn’t turn up after all but sent a telephone message – by way of your mother as he couldn’t get through direct. (I’m afraid the same thing must have happened as before since my aunt was up here at the critical time – I must remind her to remember to switch over when she comes up). I was sorry to miss him – but perhaps it was just as well.

Tuesday afternoon – Lizbeth in my arms. She weighed 9lbs 4oz this morning and has gained an average of 7 ½ oz per week in the first 8 weeks of her life. Now I can’t write you a very proper ending – but dearest love, always, Dorothy

Georgina Ferry, Dorothy Hodgkin’s biographer, tells the story of the discovery of the structure of penicillin in the 1940s

This Treasure isn’t currently on display in the Weston Library.