About a year ago I sat in the Members’ Room at the Royal Society as Professor Judith Howard FRS, once a doctoral student of Dorothy Hodgkin’s, explained how crystallographers worked in the early days. She showed me how Dorothy would begin by calibrating the black circles in an X-ray diffraction pattern by eye, to begin the long process of assembling from the shadows cast by an X-ray beam the complex three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in the molecule. Hanging on the wall outside was a Henry Moore drawing of Dorothy’s arthritic hands, the hands she said she thought with.
What intrigued me [was] seeing the combination of skills she needed, not only mathematics but hand and eye co-ordination and vision to work out how the thousand atoms in say the Vitamin B12 molecule fitted together. It was somewhere between chess and Rubik cube- a giant jigsaw puzzle where she couldn’t see the picture, or even all the pieces.
I met Judith as part of my research for a radio play about Dorothy Hodgkin and Margaret Thatcher, two extraordinary women who reached the pinnacle in their chosen spheres –and were about as different as any two women could be. From 1943 to 1947 Hodgkin was the then Margaret Roberts’ s chemistry tutor at Somerville College, Oxford from 1943 -1947 when Hodgkin was working at the cutting edge of X ray crystallography. In her fourth year Thatcher worked in Hodgkin’s lab on a molecule called Gramicidin S, which originated in the Soviet Union and had some antibiotic properties.