Sisters of Science

THE PIONEERING LEGACIES OF KATHLEEN LONSDALE AND DOROTHY CROWFOOT HODGKIN


By Leonie Biggenden, Volunteer


As Women’s History Month comes to a close, this blog post looks at two ‘sisters of science’, friends and contemporaries Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910 – 1994) and Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), and considers some links between these remarkable women.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is the only female bust in the Oxford Museum of Natural History and is the only British woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for science.  When she was awarded the Prize in 1964 – for her ground-breaking discovery of the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin – there was much scepticism about whether women belonged in the field of science. One newspaper commemorated her achievement with the headline “Nobel prize for a wife from Oxford”.

Hodgkin was assisted and supported in her endeavours by fellow scientist Kathleen Lonsdale, who worked in London while Hodgkin was based in Oxford.  Both women were pioneers who advanced the x-ray crystallography technique, in which x-rays are fired at crystals of molecules to determine their chemical structure. Lonsdale applied the technique to diamonds, benzene, and later kidney stones.  For her efforts, she had a type of diamond named after her: Lonsdaleite.  It was not just any diamond, but one formed in meteorites, as a result of the heat and pressure of impact into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Both had similar difficulties as girls wanting to study science.  Hodgkin was initially not allowed to take chemistry at her grammar school as it was considered a ‘boy’s subject’, but she thankfully managed to reverse the school’s decision, allowing her to pursue her scientific career.  Lonsdale had to transfer to a boys’ school to be able to study maths and science, as these were subjects not offered at her girls’ school. She later described how her love of maths was inspired by learning to count at school using yellow balls.

Both women were supported by strong male advocates and mentors, such as the scientist William Bragg. Bragg first met Lonsdale when he was assigned as one of her examiners, and subsequently asked her to join his research school at University College London (UCL).  Lonsdale would later follow Bragg when he moved his laboratory to the Royal Institution.  Bragg was also responsible for inspiring Hodgkin’s interest in the properties of atoms, giving her a copy of ‘Concerning the Nature of Things’ when she was 15 years old.

Lonsdale and Hodgkin worked hard to show that science was a viable option for girls.  Lonsdale’s essay, ‘Women in Science – why so few?’, argued that social expectations placed on women discouraged them from pursuing science [1]. In fact, she was so determined to encourage girls’ interest in the subject that, while ill in hospital, she received special permission to be able to leave to award prizes for science at a local girls’ school. Hodgkin advocated for female scientists and directly mentored several who went on to become important crystallographers in their own right.

Both women eventually became professors, and Lonsdale was one of the first two women elected as Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1945. In 1947, Hodgkin was one of the youngest people to be elected FRS. 

Both Hodgkin and Lonsdale were extremely concerned about the threat of nuclear war, and in 1976 Hodgkin became president of the Pugwash Conference which advocated for nuclear disarmament.  Lonsdale was also involved with Pugwash and was president of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom.  A lifelong pacifist, she went to Holloway prison in London for a month for failing to register for war service and not paying her £2 fine.  She became a dedicated advocate for prison reform after seeing the conditions of the women first-hand.

My favourite facts about both Lonsdale and Hodgkin are those that give us a glimpse of their ingenuity.  Lonsdale made her own hat to meet the Queen and have her Damehood conferred upon her.  It was constructed with lace, cardboard and 9d worth of ribbon.  Similarly, when awarded her first honorary degree, Lonsdale pinned a strip of beautiful material inside her gown as a substitute for buying a whole new dress.  Hodgkin was also very creative. As a child, she created her own personal laboratory in the attic and acquired acids from the local chemist to experiment with.

The two women held each other in great respect, as testified to by the fact that Hodgkin wrote a biographical memoir of Lonsdale.  She said of her friend: “There is a sense in which she appeared to own the whole of crystallography in her time.”  Let’s agree that both women can claim that crown. Looking back, we can remember these women for their remarkable stories, featuring precious gems, prisons, penicillin and peace. But, most importantly, we should remember Hodgkin and Lonsdale as pioneers who paved the way for future women scientists.


References

[1] Hodgkin D (1975) Kathleen Lonsdale 28 January–1 April 1971. Biogr Mems Fell R Soc 21:447–484

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More Than a Dodo

Get in touch with me: eleanor.mckelvey@oum.ox.ac.uk

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