The Beccles schoolgirl who fought to take chemistry and went on to change the world with discovery about penicllin
PUBLISHED: 10:54 07 December 2016 | UPDATED: 14:04 07 December 2016
Two little girls stand in the back row of their chemistry class in a Suffolk school.
Heads bowed, surrounded by test tubes and petri-dishes, beakers and vials, it is clear that nothing can divert them from completing their experiment.
This, it turns out, is unsurprising, bearing in mind how hard the girls had to fight to be in this lesson at all.
From their clothing, it is clear that this picture was taken nearly 100 years ago – around 1922 at a guess.
And, at second glance, something else becomes obvious.
Although the classroom is full, the two girls at the back are the only little girls in the room.
The photograph was taken at the Sir John Leman school in Beccles and the girls were named Dorothy Crowfoot and Norah Pusey.
Girls were supposed to only do domestic science at that time but Dorothy and Norah argued, successfully, that they should be allowed to do chemistry instead.
Had they lost that battle, we would have all been sorry, for Dorothy went on to become Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, a world renowned scientist who discovered the molecular structure of penicillin.
Because of Dorothy’s work in crystallography, it became possible for penicillin to be mass produced.
Similarly, she also, after a lifelong quest, identified the molecular structure of insulin, and over 100 other compounds of great value to medicine.
She won a Nobel prize and was President of the Pugwash Society – an international group of scientists who, throughout the Cold War and beyond, pledged that their scientific knowledge should only ever be used for the good of mankind.
Every child in Britain should know Dorothy’s name.
Every little girl who dreams of being more than is expected of her should grow up knowing what Dorothy achieved.
But the truth is that most people, even people who have lived their entire lives a mere stone’s throw from where Dorothy grew up, have never heard of her.
James Woodrow, former curator of the Beccles museum, believes it is time that changed.
He is planning to write to our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, as part of a campaign to have Dorothy and her achievements added to the Key Stage One curriculum so that when children learn about Florence Nightingale and Admiral Lord Nelson, they also learn about Dorothy.
“Dorothy was truly remarkable,” he says. “When I first started as a curator at the museum in 1997, I started reading up on her and when I discovered all that she had achieved, I was astonished that I hadn’t heard of her.
“I have even met people who went to her school who haven’t.
“She was a modest woman. It was well known in her laboratory that she always insisted that everyone call her Dorothy, because she believed that everybody was equal, from the Nobel winning scientist that she was to the most junior researcher.
“She was very interested in communism for a time because she believed so strongly that everyone should have an equal opportunity in life. She also supported nuclear disarmament, in line with her belief that science should only ever be used for the universal good.”
Dorothy’s left wing political views often put her at odds with her former pupil at Oxford – Margaret Thatcher, who, of course, read chemistry at Oxford.
Dorothy’s biographer, Georgina Ferry, found a scrappy piece of paper in Dorothy’s archive headed, ‘Notes for Margaret’ which said: “Object: to rethink relations with the Soviet Union on the basis that friendship is possible and would be to everyone’s advantage – trade – science – art – the lot.’
The two women met and corresponded on many occasions over the years and Mrs Thatcher always gave detailed responses to whatever points Dorothy made. She denied that ultimately declaring Gorbachev ‘a man I can do business with’ had anything to do with Dorothy, but evidence suggested that Dorothy was at the very least someone Mrs Thatcher listened to, which is notable in itself.
“We just took a different view,” Mrs Thatcher wrote. “She couldn’t dissuade me, and I couldn’t dissuade her.”
That said, when Mrs Thatcher went to Moscow in 1987, she made a point of visiting the USSR Academy of Science’s Institute of Crystallography, where Dorothy was well known and regarded.
And when delegates from the same institute visited Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street a year later, they noticed that it was Dorothy’s portrait that Mrs Thatcher displayed on her study wall.
Dorothy herself had gone to Oxford from Sir John Leman, after she had achieved the highest marks overall of any girl candidate in the School Leaving Certificate set by the Oxford Local Examinations Board.
Dorothy, who was the eldest of four sisters, won a place at Somerville College because, as she later wrote, ‘It was part of my father’s plan for me that I should be educated in the same way as a son, and therefore go to Oxford University.”
Norah wasn’t so lucky. Although she actually achieved higher marks than Dorothy in the School Cert chemistry paper, her parents sent her instead to domestic science college.
“I don’t think I shall stick this place for more than two years as at times I feel dreadfully out of things,” she wrote to Dorothy. “I am considered an awful swot and I really don’t work hard….I want to take applied chemistry instead of needlework but I don’t think it would be the use to me financially.”
The words of the little girl who wanted so badly to do chemistry ring out across the generations as a message to all children who might be talked out of fulfilling their potential, by the limitations set by others.
Norah died in her early 20s from tuberculosis, having never fulfilled hers.
Dorothy won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.
Our children should know about her.
And, as parents and guardians of the next generation, we would do well to remember Norah, too.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
Dorothy was born in Cairo in 1910 where her father, John Crowfoot, was working as an educational administrator.
When Kitchener transferred him to the Sudan, he moved his wife and four daughters to the family home at Geldeston, Beccles as he considered they would not receive proper education in Africa.
Because he worked in education, he believed Dorothy should go to the local state school, Sir John Leman in Beccles, which she attended between 1921 until 1928. Before that, she had attended classes at Beccles rectory where she first fell in love with science. She made solutions of alum and copper sulphate and watched as they evaporated, and crystals gradually appeared. “I was captured for life,” she said.
Dorothy Hodgkin became only the third Oxford woman to obtain a first in chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford.
In 1932 after a chance meeting on a train she was given a research place at Cambridge with J D Bernal, who had then started research on the study of crystals by X-ray diffraction. Hee was keen on Dorothy in other ways! But she married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin, with whom she had three children, in 1937.
It took Dorothy 3 years (until 1945) to discover the molecular strucutre of pencillin whcih enabled it to be mass produced.
In 1947 Dorothy was one of the youngest persons and the first woman to be elected ‘FELLOW OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY’.
In 1964 Awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (Only the 3rd woman in the world and the 1st English woman so honoured).
In 1965 Dorothy Hodgkin became the first person to be awarded the ‘Honorary Freedom of the Borough of Beccles’. In her speech of reply, she included the statement “I belong here in a way that I don’t to any other part of the country.”
Dorothy Hodgkin has been featured on TWO issues of Royal Mail postage stamps - in 1996 and 2010.
She died in 1994, aged 84.