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Photographing pepsin crystals


Working with JD Bernal in Cambridge
Dorothy Hodgkin Scientist
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I came to the conclusion, I spent so much time making the X-ray tube at Oxford work, it would be better to go  somewhere else where they had all the apparatus and knew more what to do than Tiny and Professor Bowman at that moment, and so I reverted to these advisers who suggested WH Bragg, and there was one other who was Lowry, Professor of Physical Chemistry in Cambridge, who said, we have a very good young man here, Bernal, who we've just appointed to start X-ray analysis going in Cambridge; why not send her here? And, the moment this idea floated round, it somehow took, because Bernal at that moment published the first notes of his measurements of the sterols, on a group of sterols, and they were very revolutionary, and obviously a biochemical subject of great interest, which...

[Q] Yes. It's also chemically very difficult?

Yes. So, so I went to Cambridge, and took photographs for Bernal on all the different things that came in, which were really all the things that the serious chemists, the organic chemists, were working on at the moment, such as the different derivatives of the sterols, and the sex hormones, testosterone, oestrone, and vitamin B1, hypochlorite, and I took the X-ray photographs and measured the densities of the crystals and determined the molecular weights. And, but all that I was thinking, really, was to settle down and work on one of these compounds, but I never did get round to doing it in Cambridge. But when I got offered an appointment at Oxford, at Somerville College, to do teaching and some research, I thought I will take some of Bernal's crystals with me, and work on one of them. It was a lucky moment in history, because, just at that moment, Patterson had discovered the Patterson [map] and published it, so there was a way to begin to look at crystals and find out something about them which hadn't been possible before. And I, I took cholesterol iodide with me in one bottle, and cholesterol bromide and chloride, because, well, the... it seemed desirable to have a heavy atom somewhere in the crystal to provide guidance to the phase constance of the structure factors.


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: JD Bernal, Arthur Lindo Patterson

Duration: 4 minutes, 9 seconds

Date story recorded: 1990

Date story went live: 02 October 2009