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Professor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was a researcher and pioneer of the use of X-ray crystallography, a technique that is used to image crystal structures. She was the sole winner of the prize in that category, a feat not many women have achieved to date. Her work on the discovery and mapping of the chemical structure of penicillin (a broad-spectrum antibiotic), vitamin B12, and even insulin!

Her fascination with crystals started from a young age and got realized once she began working with X-ray crystallography. This technique allows scientists to visualize molecules that were only theorized previously. But what is tedious about this process is that it involves tons of imaging and mathematical calculations before you can even get close to mapping the structure of the desired molecule. Bear in mind that she didn’t have fancy computers to do the job for her and all of this was done manually. So, how was it done?

Mapping the structures

She was fascinated by the first time that an organic molecule was crystallized and imaged using this technique. This led her to start working on the 3-D structure of insulin but because of the requirements of the war at the time, she shifted her focus to penicillin. So, here they pass X-rays through a purified crystal of the intended molecule, and the beam is passed through the molecule. Those beams get diffracted in different directions and the image is captured on a metal plate. Depending on the angle and intensity of the beams that were irradiated, calculations are carried out and the structure is mapped.

Molecular structure of Penicillin (Source: nobelprize.org)
Prof. Hodgkin with the X-ray crystallography pictures and models of the structures she mapped (Source: nobelprize.org)

The impact of this feat

Well, considering that this was done in the mid-1930s to early 1940s and continued up until the 1960s, it is safe to assume that all of this was by hand. This feat took the professor 4 years to map the structure of penicillin, 8 years to may the structure of vitamin B12, and 34 years to map the structure of insulin! Why so long? It depends on the number of atoms that are present in the molecule and to devise the spatial calculations for each of their domains (units) within the structure one by one, is a hard task.

This feat has changed the way in which we perceive the technique in itself. It has given us insurmountable information about such important molecules which has benefitted us in the form of therapeutics eventually. Prof. Hodgkin’s work is not only limited to the mapping of these structures but she had always been an avid believer in world peace and even sat on prestigious scientific committees to abolish weapons of mass destruction. Her work teaches us the importance of having willpower and determination in the field of science because not everything is easily achievable. Sometimes the best of life-changing discoveries, take years and even decades in the end.

References

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/dorothy-hodgkin

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