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Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life
ISBN 1862071675 / 9781862071674 / 1-86207-167-5
Publisher Granta Books
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"The lives of scientists, considered as lives, almost always make dull reading". Georgina Ferry has taken it upon herself to defy the late Peter Medawar's words with this delightful life of Dorothy Hodgkin. Dorothy who? Precisely Ferry's point. This book represents a first for both women; surprisingly this is the first biography of Hodgkin, who devoted her life to solving the structure of large complex molecules such as insulin, penicillin and vitamin B12, for which she received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, and it is the first book by Ferry, a burgeoning talent in the field of science journalism. That both women emerge with their reputations considerably enhanced goes some way to compensating for the previous neglect.
Ferry manages the near-miraculous in explaining the theory behind X-ray crystallography using clear and accessible terms that do not demand the powers of concentration that were perhaps Hodgkin's own greatest asset. Her personal life was characterised by distance; her childhood was spent mostly separated from her parents, she lived mainly apart from her husband Thomas, though the marriage lasted until his death in 1982, and the intellectual commitment she gave to her work inevitably affected the time she had for her children. However, she maintained a lifelong friendship with her mentor, J.D. "Sage" Bernal, legendary for his Marxism, voracious mind and even more voracious appetite for women, and until her death in 1994 she believed passionately in resolving international disputes through dialogue, leading her to become president of the anti-nuclear group Pugwash, and even to lobby a former student of hers, a certain Margaret Thatcher. Ferry treats her revelations regarding Hodgkin's relationships with an understated tact of which Hodgkin herself would have been proud and it is this sensitivity, allied to no little skill, that enables her to coax the quietly inspirational scientist out from the laboratory and in the process to belittle the notion that science, and people of science, cannot be extraordinary. --David Vincent [via]