Why Dorothy Hodgkin belongs on the £50 note – by Faye Riley

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin worked out what insulin looks like, unlocking treatments for people with diabetes for years to come. We think it’s high time we celebrated her achievements and made her the face of the new £50 note.

An atomic pioneer

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin was a chemist and an innovator of X-ray crystallography. “What’s that?” we hear you cry. It’s essentially a way of working out what proteins in our body (like insulin) look like, right down to the atomic level.

Scientists do this by putting the protein they want to look at in a solution. Then they grow crystals – a bit like you can do at home with salt. They then fire X-ray beams through the crystal, producing a ‘photograph’ of the protein.

We’ve missed out a few steps, but once you know what a protein looks like, you can understand what it does inside the body in more detail. You can reproduce it in the lab, or develop drugs to stop it working (or make it work better).

Dorothy’s pioneering work in crystallography gave birth to a whole new field and, thanks to the methods she developed, we now know the 3D shapes of more than 139,000 biological molecules. Wow.

The 3D structure of penicillin

 

Breaking the sound barrier

As a young researcher, Dorothy set up a lab in the Museum of Natural History (part of the University of Oxford at the time).  There she became fascinated with insulin because it was such a complex molecule.

During the Second World War, Dorothy had to put her insulin research to one side after she was tasked with finding the shape of penicillin. By 1945 she had succeeded. Not only did this help us understand how penicillin could overcome bacterial infections, it’s still extremely important today as scientists look to develop new antibiotics.

The next molecule she tackled was vitamin B12, a hugely complex structure of 100 atoms. When she solved it in 1957, her colleagues described her achievement as the equivalent of breaking the sound barrier.

An extraordinary legacy

Dorothy won a Nobel Prize for these ground-breaking discoveries in 1964, and remains the only British woman to have done so in science. At the time, headlines around the world focused on her role as a wife (“Oxford housewife wins Nobel Prize”), rather than her astonishing research.

Throughout her career, Dorothy continued to push boundaries for women in science. Including fighting the withdrawal of research funding from graduate women who decided to marry.

Wallpaper inspired by the pattern of insulin

But one particular achievement was yet to come. She never gave up on her research into insulin. And in 1969, after 35 years of painstaking and pioneering work, she finally discovered its 3D shape.

Knowing what insulin looked like helped researchers to understand what the hormone did inside the body, and paved the way for the production of synthetic insulin in the lab – which millions of people with diabetes all over the world depend on today.

Her achievements are all the more remarkable given she developed rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 28. Despite swollen and painful hands, she continued to work with the tiny crystals (smaller than a grain of salt) needed for her studies. Plus, alongside her extraordinary research, Dorothy campaigned tirelessly for peace, nuclear disarmament and international collaboration in science.

All of the world-leading research we fund is thanks to your donations. So who better to put on the new £50 note than an epic diabetes researcher, whose work has transformed the lives of people with diabetes?

If you agree, help us make it happen. The Bank of England are taking nominations until the Friday, 14 December and you can have your say.

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