A scientist for peace

Published : Mar 03, 2001 00:00 IST

A tribute to Dorothy Hodgkin, scientist, peace activist and a friend of India, on the occasion of International Women's Day on March 8.

INTERNATIONAL Women's Day falls on March 8. Ninety-three years ago (then it was called the National Women's Day in the United States), this day represented a notable victory for democracy as a whole, for it was a symbol of the equality of men and women a t their workplaces and thus forged a unity of the working people. What is more, this triumph came at a time when women had entered certain professions hitherto barred to them, the scientific profession being the most spectacular among them. In a span of barely eight years, the Polish born French scientist Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes in science, thus demolishing the notion that the scientific profession was the monopoly of men of noble pedigree.

Dorothy Hodgkin, who would be England's first woman Nobel laureate in science, was born on May 12, 1910, in Cairo - just a year before Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize - to a school inspector, John Crowfoot, and his wife Molly. Nobel Prizes are given every year, but not everyone is an Einstein or a Bohr or a Curie. Dorothy Hodgkin shares something common with these scientists of the "romantic era". She did science for "science's sake" and yet understood its great socio-political role. She had a disinterest in "fame", and yet when it came to her, she used it to promote science and also for the socio-political cause that she believed in. The International Women's Day became a world event primarily after the overthrow of the Czarist regime, thus recognising the Russian women's demand for "bread and peace". Do rothy was not essentially a political agitator, yet these were her aims too. This tribute to her on the eve of International Women's Day is a tribute to the democratic cause that the movement represents.

Dorothy's early days were spent in Egypt and Sudan. It was here that she did her first experiments in science. Also here she had a first-hand glimpse of the brutalities of colonial rule: destruction of villages, massacres of men and cattle and of uprisin gs against the British rule. At the age of ten, when Dorothy left North Africa with her mother and sisters to join school in England, the wounds of the First World War had not yet healed. Her mother had lost all her brothers in the War and many English f amilies had suffered similar tragedies. Molly Crowfoot was a Labour Party member and became an active campaigner for peace. She took her children to the 6th Assembly of the League of Nations in 1925, in Geneva. For Dorothy, a future president of the Pugw ash Conference, this was one of the first public activities and she remembered "the atmosphere charged with emotion, of hope struggling against a sense of doom."

The Crowfoots did not have a son but gave all support to their daughters' education and Dorothy admits that she owed more to her mother than her father. Molly bought for Dorothy a set of lectures by William Bragg on X-ray crystallography. From then on Do rothy was fascinated by chemistry and by the world of crystals. She sat for the school-leaving examination in 1928 and won a 30 scholarship and an admission to Sommerville College, Oxford.

From the caring cover of her mother, Dorothy was now to face the world - and what a hostile world it was! Oxford was known to be a seat of social orthodoxy. Even in 1927 it had passed a legislation to limit the number of woman students. Many university b odies barred women from membership, and some Professors even refused to admit women to their classes. Such discrimination against women was not uncommon in England in those days, which gave voting rights to women only in 1928.

In college, Dorothy read chemistry and pursued X-ray crystallography. The German physicist Von Laue was the first to apply X-rays for the study of crystals. Laue had asked: "If X-rays can find cracks in bones, can they not find cracks in crystals?" It tu rned out that they could. Most of the space in crystals is empty, except for atoms, which sit at regular intervals. An X-ray photograph of a crystal shows some spots on a photographic plate. British crystallographers William and Lawrence Bragg (father an d son, who shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics) showed that the pattern formed by these spots could give the nature of the atomic arrangements in crystals. The main task of a crystallographer is to find the crystal structure from the positions of thes e spots and also by noting how dark these spots are. From these spots, a crystallographer first intuitively guesses the possible structures. Through detailed calculations one then eliminates the unlikely candidates and keeps refining the physically consi stent model of the crystal arrangements. The work is generally very tedious and involve lots of trial and error.

As a student Dorothy had developed insights into crystallography and decided to do a dissertation in the subject. In her B.A. (1932) she got a first class and secured a scholarship for further studies in Cambridge in the laboratory of John Desmond Bernal , a pioneer in applying X-ray crystallography for the study of chemistry and biology. Bernal's influence, however, went beyond the confines of crystallography. He was an avowed Communist and believed that only a socialist state, such as the Soviet Union, could free science from the shackles that held it and promote its development for the benefit of the entire humanity. Dorothy's own dormant radical ideas matched those of Bernal. Events such as the economic depression, the rise of fascism and the Spanis h Civil War had shaken the intelligentsia from its complacence and Bernal was their leader. When the War broke out he led British scientists in the War efforts. Dorothy felt that the best way she could help anti-fascist resistance was by keeping science alive in the British universities and went about doing her immediate task, that was X-ray crystallography.

The informality of Bernal's laboratory spelt freedom from the orthodoxy of Oxford. Dorothy's collaboration with Bernal produced 12 papers in two years, including the pioneering work on proteins. She left, somewhat reluctantly, when her alma mater, Sommerville College, offered her a job. This meant that the collaboration with Bernal would stop but it also gave her a chance to establish herself as a scientist in her own right. She returned to Oxford in 1934 and found her colleagues to be supportive of her. This was because the chemists had understood that her support from crystallography would be valuable for their understanding of chemistry. Barely a few months after Dorothy's return to Oxford, one of her senior colleagues brought her crystals of insulin and asked her to find its structure.

Insulin was first isolated in 1922 by Canadian scientists and was first crystallised in 1926 but no one had determined its structure. It was known that insulin controls the sugar concentration in the pancreas and has miraculous effects on diabetes patien ts. To understand its action, its structure was to be known and that was a challenge to Dorothy. She began this work in 1934, as a fairly inexperienced researcher, of only 25 years of age and it took her 35 years to solve the problem!

Dorothy's first major work on a large molecule involved the determination of the structure of penicillin. Though discovered in 1928, the first attempts at industrial production of penicillin began during the War years, for the treatment of wounded soldie rs. The known methods of preparing from fungus mould could not meet the needs of large-scale production. Synthetic methods were tried but the end products could not be confirmed. Much of the wasteful trial and error could be cut down if the structure of penicillin were known. Dorothy undertook this project with her students and later learnt that her work had become a 'military secret'. This was because penicillin was found immensely effective in treating wounded soldiers. Dorothy's results could not be used in Wartime, but after the War her methods were applied as effective means of drug design.

This work in penicillin established Dorothy as a crystallographer of eminence. In 1948, she got an offer to find the structure of vitamin B12. Like insulin and penicillin, this molecule too is clinically important. It is present in the liver and is known to cure pernicious anaemia. Dorothy had a special interest as a crystallographer to take up this work. B12 is more complex than penicillin but less complex than insulin. B12 could thus give her new insights into tackling the insulin problem. In common p arlance, it was a warming up exercise. But it gave her more. It brought her the Nobel and to chemistry and biology it gave greater insight into the question of organisation of molecules.

While working on the B12 molecule, Dorothy learnt that fierce competition had broken out between the drug monopolies, Merck and Glaxo, to "own" the B12 structure. These companies gave funds to research groups with conditions that results must not be made public and be handed over to the funding agency. Dorothy tried her best to stay clear of these lobbies as she found lobbying distasteful. But one "lobby", which she found to her "taste", was the peace movement. As a result of this involvement, she was d enied a visa in 1953 to visit the United States, just as her friend Linus Pauling (two-time Nobel winner - 1934 in Chemistry and 1962 for Peace) was refused a passport the previous year by the U.S. administration.

The B12 work took Dorothy twelve years to complete. It brought her the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This prize meant great satisfaction to her as also to her colleagues, past and present. Of special significance was the fact that she was the sole winne r of the chemistry prize that year. But this was not what she wanted. Dorothy always felt that she should have shared the prize with Bernal, whose guidance in every crucial problem, she always acknowledged. Bernal, it is noted by many, was the originator of many outstanding ideas in biology and about a dozen Nobel prize winners owe their success to him. Bernal himself never got the Nobel. Those who knew Dorothy recall that an important trait in Dorothy's character was her equanimity (like Bernal's) conc erning honours and her readiness to share the honour and acknowledge the credit where it was due.

With the Nobel Prize, a scientist is considered to have reached the summit. There are a few who aim for the clouds. To Dorothy, neither the B12 nor the Nobel Prize was the end of the road. the structure of insulin was still to be found. With her team she made a determined effort. In 1969 the problem was solved, as a fitting finale to a distinguished career. In the 37 years that Dorothy gave to crystallography, the field had changed. At every step she reviewed the developments in science and made use of the newer techniques that emerged. But at no stage of her life was she flush with funds. To a complaint that science in India was starved of finances, she had once remarked - to her student K. Venkatesan (who retired as Professor from the Indian Institut e of Science) - that her constraints in terms of funds gave her a challenge and made her more creative.

Dorothy retired in 1970 when she turned 60. The next year she faced a personal loss at the death of Bernal. It is known that as a young student she had fallen in love with Bernal, who was already married and being an ebullient personality was temperament ally Dorothy's opposite. But fortunately, Dorothy had met a young man in 1937, who matched her ideas of a husband. His name was Thomas Hodgkin, who hailed from an aristocratic family. Hodgkin's disease was identified by one of his grand uncles; the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology was won by one of Thomas' nephews. Thomas was a Communist Party worker. When they married, he had no regular income and Dorothy maintained the family with her meagre salary, even making dresses herself, and raising a kitchen gar den. This continued for many years and Dorothy brought up the three children, practically all alone as Thomas was away in long spells for his political work and often job hunting. Thomas too was an intellectual of rare ability and as an expert in African affairs served as an adviser to Ghana and other newly independent African states. Dorothy too would help the cause of these nations in her own way, and of course Bernal would be a source of support for the Hodgkin couple.

The decolonisation of the globe, which began after the Second World War, gave Dorothy hope and also responsibilities. She took many African and Asian students as her collaborators, many of whom later became scientific leaders in India. To all of them she reminded that it was their duty to return home and build science in their own countries. Dorothy's experiences, however, showed that this process of building science in developing countries faced impediments from a deep-rooted bureaucratic authoritarian ism, what J.B.S. Haldane called the new caste system.

THE Nobel Prize did not bring any extravagance to the Hodgkins but it made Dorothy more busy. She felt that it was her duty to work more actively for the causes she deeply believed in, but surprisingly it was to the women's movement that her links were t he weakest as she had differences with the so-called 'feminists'. It was not that she was unconscious of women's problems and the social stigma that womanhood often put. She was fortunate compared to other women scientists. Marie Curie never voted, for s he died well before suffrage was granted to French women. Neither she nor her daughter Irene (the 1935 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry) could qualify for the membership of the French Academy of Science. Dorothy was more fortunate. She became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1947.

By temperament, Dorothy felt that the peace movement and the movement for scientific cooperation were dearest to her. She was elected president of the Pugwash Peace Conference and visited India in that capacity in 1976, to inaugurate its 26th session.

Dorothy had had an attack of rheumatism at the age of 28, which affected her mobility. It nearly crippled her in her old age but that did not deter her from travelling around the world, whenever the movement demanded it. She visited Africa many times wit h Thomas as also, the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Japan and India. In one of her last visits here (1979), she travelled to Kerala in poor health, to meet E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Her student M. Vijayan (Professor, Indian Institute of Science) recalls that any social movement that gave a fillip to the weaker sections of the people claimed the Hodgkins' personal attention. This visit to Kerala was thus very special for them. Thomas undertook this journey ignoring his failing health and nearly died of exhau stion.

Dorothy was not an eloquent speaker. So "voicing" protests did not seem natural with her. Her association with the peace movement and the Medical Aid Foundation for Vietnam was her way of marking her protest against militarisation. Sometimes it would tak e more personal forms, for example when she decided to send her daughter Elizabeth to work in North Vietnam at the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968 (the visit materialised in 1973, amidst large-scale hostilities). When such personal acts appeared inef fective, vocal protests too came naturally to her, as she did to Henry Kissinger at the escalation of aerial bombing in Vietnam in 1971 and to Margaret Thatcher (her ex-student) at her anti-Sovietism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union must have been a great shock to Dorothy. Three years later, on July 29, 1994, she passed away. Her Nobel money had been spent in the social causes that she believed in. She was, as described by her friend and Nobel Prize winning crystallographer Mark Perutz, "a great chemist, a saintly, tolerant and gentle lover of people and a devoted protagonist of peace." As if to honour her posthumously (as also Linus Pauling, who died two weeks after Dorothy), the 1995 Nobel Peace P rize was awarded to the Pugwash Conference. This award symbolised an honour, to be shared by all peace lovers and would have been as dear to Dorothy as other numerous awards, she had won as an individual.

S. Chatterjee is a scientist at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore.

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