For awesomeness it is hard to beat Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910 – 1994). She won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, the first British woman scientist to do so, for her X-ray crystallographic studies of penicillin and vitamin B12. This October sees the 50th anniversary of the announcement of her prize, and she still remains the only woman in Britain to win a science Nobel.

But, I hear you say, why are we talking about her here? Dorothy Crowfoot came from a distinguished family of archaeologists, many of them women. Her father John Winter Crowfoot became Director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in 1926 (see his obituary by Kathleen Kenyonpdf). Her mother, Grace ‘Molly’ Crowfoot, and her sisters Joan Crowfoot Payne and Elisabeth Crowfoot have already been acknowledged as part of the Trowelblazers network. Her youngest sister Diana Crowfoot Rowley deserves a place too, having worked for decades with her husband Graham Rowley on the archaeology, anthropology and geology of the Canadian Arctic. Dorothy’s niece Susan Rowley is a curator at the Museum of Anthropology in British Columbia, who has carried out her own archaeological fieldwork in the Arctic. Quite a Trowelblazers pedigree!

A Passion for Patterns 

Dorothy might well have become an archaeologist too, had she not been ‘captured’ by chemistry and crystals at the age of ten. She certainly shared her parents’ passion for the subject. Between passing the Oxford entrance examination in March 1928 and taking up her place at Somerville College to read Chemistry in October that year, she joined them on a new excavation of the ancient city of Jerash, in what is now Jordan. She took on the role of recording the patterns of the stunning mosaic pavements that emerged as the soil was brushed away from the remains of more than a dozen 5th and 6th century Byzantine churches.

As her later career as an X-ray crystallographer showed, Dorothy never gave up a task half way through. She took her partly completed illustrations back to Oxford, and spent more than a year finishing them. Drawing the pattern precisely to scale, she represented each 1cm tessera, or tile, as a 1mm dot of paint. She sent the completed illustrations to Yale University, which had co-sponsored the dig, and there they remain to this day as part of the official record of the excavation.

Dorothy Hodgkin took more than a year, while a chemistry student at Oxford, to complete this painting of a mosaic floor from Jerash, now in the Yale University Art Gallery. Copyright Yale University, All Rights Reserved. With thanks to Lisa Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art, for permitting us to use this image.

Dorothy Hodgkin took more than a year, while a chemistry student at Oxford, to complete this painting of a mosaic floor from Jerash, now in the Yale University Art Gallery. Copyright Yale University, All Rights Reserved. With thanks to Lisa Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art, for permitting us to use this image.

And her archaeological work didn’t end there. Silicate analysis was not strictly part of her undergraduate course. But, as a favour for her mother, Dorothy persuaded a junior researcher in the chemistry lab to lend her equipment and to ‘lead gas connections onto the roof outside the laboratory so that [she] could work in vacations,’ so that she could chemically analyse the glass tesserae from Jerash. Here’s a quote from a letter she wrote to her parents in 1929:

My dearest Mummy and Daddy

This letter is being written in the OCD [Old Chemistry Department] on Monday evening, with all my pots and pans boiling merrily all round me. I have been feeling so miserable this weekend but have quite cheered up now. This afternoon I found the slightest trace of my old friend Titanium in the blue glass – isn’t that good news! Perhaps Mummy will remember the other time in my life I met titanium – in Khartum with Dr Joseph from the ilmenite Joan and I extracted from our gadwell [she was not quite 14 at the time]. I carefully wrote down and kept the test he taught me and now after all these years I have used it again!

I had a tragedy on Saturday and lost all the cobalt from the dark blue glass so I had to go to the Ashmolean on Monday and extract Mr Harden’s last-but-one piece of it. So if you are prowling round Jerash and likely to find some more bits of it – you might bring them back.

Next week I hope to send you a full analysis of the blue glass and possibly too of some green!’

Until she was swept up in the intensity of her research career, she kept up her interest in archaeology, wielding a trowel on digs around Oxford that were organised by the Ashmolean Museum. Meanwhile the intensive study she had made of the geometrical patterns in the Jerash pavements prepared her mind for the complex three-dimensional geometries of atoms in crystals of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin.

Detail of Hodgkin's painting of the Jerash Mosaics, illustrating the fine intricacy of her work. Copyright Yale University.

Detail of Hodgkin’s painting of the Jerash Mosaics, illustrating the fine intricacy of her work. Copyright Yale University.

Joining the Dots: from Dorothy Hodgkin to Dorothy Garrod

Dorothy Hodgkin’s life and work were rich in connections with trowelblazing archaeologists beyond her family. Margery Fry, Principal of Somerville College and prison reformer, spotted Dorothy’s unique gifts early on. She became a lifelong friend, and introduced Dorothy to her future husband Thomas Hodgkin, who was a cousin of Margery’s. This is the same Margery Fry who saw something special in Kathleen Kenyon (despite her mediocre grades), and arranged for K to go on her first archaeological dig: to Great Zimbabwe with Gertrude Caton Thompson.

And Dorothy’s sister Joan Crowfoot excavated with Dorothy Garrod at Mount Carmel in 1934, meaning Dorothy Hodgkin has a Garrod Number of just two!

Then there was Mary Winearls Porter (1886-1980), known as Polly, who was Mary Carlisle Fellow at Somerville in Dorothy Hodgkin’s time. Porter was a classical (rather than X-ray) crystallographer working in the Oxford Museum on Roman marbles and Hodgkin thought highly of her [PLEASE can someone write us a post on Polly?! – Ed.].

Moving from trowelblazers to connections within Hodgkin’s own field of research, a whole other fascinating network of pioneering women scientists opens up. There was Dorothy Wrinch, a mathematician teaching at Oxford who got involved in theoretical studies of protein structure. Kathleen Lonsdale — who started her career in crystallography under William Bragg at the RI in 1922, and was one of the first two women elected to the Royal Society in 1945. Lonsdale was very supportive of Hodgkin, especially during her work on penicillin, and before she became a mother herself Hodgkin was encouraged by the fact that Lonsdale had kept her career going despite having three children. And Helen Megaw was a research associate of JD Bernal’s in Cambridge while Hodgkin was doing her PhD . Rosalind Franklin deserves a mention too: she brought some of her early data on DNA to Oxford, and Hodgkin and her post-doc Jack Dunitz helped her to narrow down the choice of space groups. And finally, there’s a whole cascade of Hodgkin’s students (Jenny Glusker, Judith Howard, Pauline Harrison, Eleanor Dodson…) who went on to work in the field. X-ray crystallography has produced TWO female Nobel Prize winners, and like archaeology it seems these early networks may be key to women’s success as pioneers.


Post written by Georgina Ferry (@ferrygeo)

Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry is reissued by Bloomsbury Publishing on 11 September 2014.


Edited by Tori & Becky


Further information:

Watch this wonderful video of Dorothy from 1990 recalling her early years, excavations at Jerash and her drawings of the mosaics from It sounds like she would be very pleased that they are being shared with a wider audience:

For more on the collaborative networks of women in crystallography, read this excellent piece (also by Georgina Ferry), and also this great article by @AtheneDonald, Professor in Experimental Physics.

In yet another serendipitous TB moment, the post on Dorothy Hodgkin was submitted while we were in conversation on Twitter with some of DH’s relatives about the possibility of featuring her. Kate Hodgkin, grand-daughter and historian, had recently written a critique of a play on DH, and from this other Hodgkins popped up in our Twitter chat, including Simon Hodgkin, an astronomer, who offered to have a look for DH’s mosaic drawings. As it turned out, they were included in the submitted article, but we are very grateful to the various Hodgkins who took time to talk to us, and were positive about us celebrating DH’s work here at TrowelBlazers.


You can win a copy of Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life if you ‘Join the Dots’: can you get from Dorothy Hodgkin to Dorothy Garrod in less than six steps? There’s more than one way (this figure may help: trowelblazer network), and we welcome all correct answers*!

Tweet us your answer @trowelblazers using hashtag #Dot2Dot, or share this post on Facebook and we’ll pop your name in a hat at the end of the week. The lucky winner will be drawn the following week, and announced on the blog page about this competition

*Bonus points and honourable mentions for advanced Dot2Dot efforts, with as many links as possible, or featuring as many Dorothy/Dorotheas as possible!

Special thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for supplying the prize!


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