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8 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM

The schoolgirl who fought to take chemistry

//www.eadt.co.uk
The schoolgirl who fought to take chemistry

Two little girls stand in the back row of their chemistry class. Head bowed, surrounded by test tubes and Petri dishes, beakers and vials, it is clear that nothing can divert them from completing their experiment. This photograph was taken nearly 100 years ago _ around 1922 _ at the Sir John Leman School in Beccles in Suffolk and the girls were Dorothy Crowfoot and Norah Pusey. And, at second glance, something else becomes obvious. Although the classroom is full, they are the only girls in the room.

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.

Thanks to Dorothy’s work in crystallography, it became possible for penicillin to be mass produced. Similarly, she also identified the molecular structure of insulin, and over 100 other compounds of great value to medicine. She won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 “for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”.

Every little girl who dreams of being more than what is expected of her should know what Dorothy achieved. But the truth is that most people, even those who live 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 British 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 read about Florence Nightingale, they will also learn about Dorothy.

“Dorothy was truly remarkable,” Woodrow said. “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.”

Dorothy went to Oxford University from Sir John Leman, after she had achieved the highest overall marks 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.”

Norah wasn’t so lucky. Although she actually achieved higher marks than Dorothy in the 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 want to take applied chemistry instead of needlework, but I don’t think it would be of 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.

Dorothy was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1910 where her father, John Crowfoot, was working as an educational administrator. When he was transferred him to Sudan, he sent his wife and children home to Geldeston, Beccles.

Dorothy attended the local state school, Sir John Leman, from 1921 to 1928. Before that, she took 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 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.

It took Dorothy three years (until 1945) to discover the molecular structure of penicillin which enabled it to be mass produced. In 1947, Dorothy was the first woman to be elected ‘Fellow of the Royal Society’.

Dorothy married Thomas Lionel Hodgkin in 1937 and they had three children. She died in 1994, aged 84.

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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