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Work on thallium with HM Powell


Crystallography at Oxford University
Dorothy Hodgkin Scientist
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Oxford University had, like many universities in that period, a crystallography department, which was part of the mineralogy department, and was really only concerned with the external form of crystals. It, I can't say it was very flourishing as a department. I know it best from reading the history of the period, it was after the women's colleges were beginning, when Henry Miers was a student of the classics, as many scientists were at that time, and, but also wanted to read, study crystal, crystal growth and become very much interested in it, and he used to go to the professor of crystallography's lectures, which happened on Saturday morning,  because the professor of crystallography was Story-Maskelyne, who doubled, or perhaps one should say tripled, his occupations with being a Liberal Member of Parliament for Luton and head of the mineral collection in the South Kensington Museum, and on Saturday mornings, his lectures were attended by, by only Henry Miers and by, I think his name was Henry Swiss, who was a tutor in mathematics at Baliol at the time, was also interested in the subject. And... but they were, they really had very interesting discussions.

Soon after the time that the theory of space groups had been developed by three different authors, they discussed these and then had a discussion on it at the British Association afterwards. Well, I was caught up in this because one of Henry Miers's best pupils was called - I'm being slightly held up at the moment - Barker - I remember his name - and he, he went to... was sent by Henry Miers to Russia, to work with Federov, who was one of those who had found the space groups. And Barker gave a course of lectures in Oxford at the time I was an undergraduate, and I, of course, set out bravely to go to them in my first term. Barker was a very nice individual by all accounts, and was, in fact, bursar of Somerville and curator of the university chest at the same time. But he wrote a little letter to me advising me not to take his course in my first year, but to get through the preliminaries that I had to first, and then to take it as an extra later on. And he died in my... at about the middle of this time, so I was always really very glad that I had taken even a little bit in my first year.

But he had a particular research assistant who had in fact been picked up by Henry Miers with a girl called Polly Porter, whose parents did a lot of travelling abroad, and she had spent some time in Russia, and then Rome, and she came to Oxford with her little collection of marbles that she had picked up in Rome, and to identify them by the mineral specimens in the museum, and Henry Miers saw her and said, wouldn't you like to come and grow some crystals yourself? And she said, oh, yes. So he took her in and he explained, they hadn't really money for doing this research, but he just encouraged anybody who felt they wanted to do some, and made it possible for them to do a little. And Polly, by the time I was there, had a proper grant, which was really organised by Barker, who by that time was the head of the [unclear] crystallography, because Henry Miers himself had gone to Manchester as vice-chancellor. And Manchester, I'm glad to say, made him professor of crystallography as well.


British pioneer of X-ray crystallography, Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), is best known for her ground-breaking discovery of the structures of penicillin, insulin and vitamin B12. At age 18, she started studying chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, then one of the University of Oxford colleges for women only. She also studied at the University of Cambridge under John Desmond Bernal, where she became aware of the potential of X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of proteins. Together with Sydney Brenner, Jack Dunitz, Leslie Orgel, and Beryl Oughton, she was one of the first people in April 1953 to see the model of the structure of DNA, constructed by Francis Crick and James Watson. She was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is also known for her peace work with organisations such as Science for Peace and the Medical Aid Committee for Vietnam. All recorded material copyright of The Biochemical Society.

Listeners: Guy Dodson

Guy Dodson studied chemistry and physical science at the University of New Zealand, followed by a PhD on the crystallographic study of an alkaloid. In 1961, he came to Oxford to work on the crystal structure of insulin. In the mid 1970s Guy and his wife moved to York University to establish a laboratory. In addition to insulin studies the laboratory has investigated many complex molecules of medical significance, including haemoglobin, myoglobin, HIV related proteins, proteases and proteins involved in managing nucleic acids in cells. In 1993, he went to the NIMR in London to establish a crystallographic group in an environment that spanned molecular, physiological and disease-related disciplines. Here his research began on some cell signalling proteins. His interests on medically relevant proteins included prions, malarial and TB proteins, and some clinically relevant thrombin inhibitors. Guy Dodson retired in 2004 but is still finding much to do in York and the NIMR.

Tags: HenryMiers, Polly Porter

Duration: 6 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: 1990

Date story went live: 02 June 2008