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Pugwash Review
by Martin Kaplan

Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life

Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life

by Georgina Ferry

Granta Books Website
©1998 Granta Books


DOROTHY Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) spanned the era of the 1920s to the 1970 when British scientists were astonishingly productive in fundamental scientific discoveries that transformed the domains of physics, chemistry and biology. Georgina Ferry's excellent biography, well illustrated with many photographs, gives valuable insights on how science and scientists functioned during that period in which Dorothy was an important participant in the small but elite groups of the great British universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge. They dominated the scene, often only by using ingenuity and their proverbial "sealing wax and string" resources in small cramped quarters, in contrast to the lavish facilities and resources available to day to scientists in many countries. Ferry's book is further enriched by detailing Dorothy's deep pre-occupation with problems of war and peace that brought her to the presidency of Pugwash from 1976-1988, the period when I served as the organization's executive head.

Ferry's biography aptly characterizes Dorothy as "a quintessentially English woman whose humanity recognized no national boundaries." Dorothy Mary Crowfoot's parents came from conventional well-off families who valued learning and intellectual curiosity. They strongly influenced Dorothy towards systematic investigation to answer questions. Her early scholarship in Suffolk was under progressive educators who used practical demonstrations to teach their students. An unforgettable experiment for Dorothy was one of mixing solutions of alum and copper sulfate which were then allowed to evaporate and produced sparkling crystals. She later wrote "I was captured for life by chemistry and by crystals."

Her father John studies classics at Oxford which took him to Greece, Cyprus and Asia Minor to work on excavations. Before he left England in 1909 John married Grace Mary Hood (Molly) whose background prepared her to be a good wife to a country gentleman. Dorothy was born the next year and for the first four years of her life she and her family lived the typical life of English expatriates administering the empire in its outposts. They returned to England for a few months each year but during the entire period of the First World War the children, cared for by relatives and friends, saw their mother only once, when she visited England for a few weeks. Molly then decided to stay home in England and undertook to educate her children herself on walks, nature studies, and history which were all greatly enjoyed -- a period Dorothy felt was the happiest in her life.

In 1921, Dorothy entered the Leman School, an excellent new, state-funded secondary school. She traveled abroad frequently to visit her parents in Cairo and Khartoum. Both parents had a strong influence on Dorothy with their Puritan ethic of duty, selflessness and service to humanity which reverberated in her later achievements.

Dorothy developed early a passion for chemistry, and her mother fostered her interest in science in general. The excellent education given at Leman School prepared her for Somerville College, an Oxford College for Women. She entered at the age of 18 to read Chemistry. There she became interested in crystallography using X-rays. She joined a small group which worked in small quarters, and was attracted by the work of Linus Pauling and J.D. Bernal on complex organic compounds.

Bernal became a great influence on Dorothy which lasted throughout his life. Dorothy always referred to him as "Sage" and loved and admired him unreservedly. She depended on him for both scientific and political guidance, and, intermittently, they were lovers. The conventional marriages of both Bernal and Dorothy were far from smooth. Ferry deals sensitively with the often difficult relations between Dorothy and Bernal, as well as with her husband Thomas whom she also loved and always consulted concerning important problems and decisions. Dorothy bore quietly the many difficulties of these situations. Bernal was a distinguished scientist of great repute in the scientific world. He was a member of the Communist party and a faithful supporter of successive Soviet regimes until their invasion of Hungary. Thomas was also a one-time member of the Communist party, as well as a charming, intelligent, energetic and impulsive suitor. He captured Dorothy in marriage in 1937, despite her preoccupation with r esearch. Thomas later had a checkered and varied career as a schoolteacher, worker's educationist, historian and economist. He became an advisor in 1961 to Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, where he remained for extended periods, often visited by Dorothy.

Although much influenced by Bernal's and Thomas's political thinking, Dorothy never joined the Communist party. her attraction to leftist politics was primarily on humanitarian grounds -- on world peace, resolution of conflictual situation by meetings of prominent scientists on both sides, and alleviation of the economically down-trodden and poor countries. her eminence in crystallography was known and appreciated by the elite groups of scientists in countries of the Communist block - Russia, China and the Warsaw Pact - as well as the West, and Japan and India. She traveled extensively and was feted wherever she went, both before and after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 and the Order of Merit in 1965. One of Dorothy's great personal satisfactions came when she was elected to the Royal Society in 1947, where she joined Kathleen Lonsdale, a great friend, Quaker, pacifist and future Pugwashite.

Ferry follows Dorothy carefully during her research work in crystallography which was carried out among first-class scientists who worked in Oxford, Cambridge and London universities. Nobelist Max Perutz, still working in Cambridge was a life-long friend.

Her biographer details the physical and bureaucratic difficulties of operating in those hallowed British universities: poor pay, slow advancement, a mixture of petty, principled, but often stiff-necked attitudes that permeated the committees and high tables. Those obstacles had to be endured if individual hard work, originality, doggedness, and devotion were to persevere and result ultimately in the deservedly high reputations of Dorothy and her colleagues. Dorothy was a dedicated "bench scientist" who diligently performed experiments herself despite progressive rheumatoid arthritis which seriously affected her hands.

We owe much to Jo Rotblat and Rudi Peierls for their success in persuading Dorothy to assume her active presidency of Pugwash starting in 1976. In our 12 years of common service to Pugwash I had the privilege of working closely with Dorothy, witnessing her in action both in personal and official settings. She was always soft-spoken, but firm -- although non-confrontational -- in her views when fundamental prinicples were involved -- anti-militarist, peaceful resolution of conflicts, advocacy of countering the plight of the poor and underprivileged, and promoting world scientific progress, as evidenced in her speeches at the annual Pugwash Conferences and workshops which she faithfully attended.

An excellent example of Dorothy's effectiveness in difficult situation is the 1982 Pugwash Conference held in Warsaw, Poland. The first obstacle to be overcome was whether or not to hold the conference in Poland, where political strife and oppression were very troubling. General Jaruszielski was head of government and had tried to repress the Solidarity movement led by Lech Waleasa. Strident disturbances were common. The Pugwash Council was split as to whether or not to proceed with preparations for the Conference, transfer it to another country, or cancel it altogether. The Pugwash tradition of keeping open all avenues of discussion between scientists of different political persuasions won out for proceeding with Warsaw as the venue.

During the Conference the Pugwash Council was invited to a private meeting General Jaruszielski, which was accepted. Miguel Wionczek, a former Polish citizen, was a member of Council and ensured that the official translations of tough critical questions and comments (including political oppression) made by Council members were accurately translated in the exchanges during a meeting of several hours. (We had invited student Pugwash representatives to attend the Conference sessions, and a number of them decided to stay in Warsaw to witness demonstrations by Polish students and other opponents of the regime. They experienced whiffs of tear gas.)

Flora Lewis, a well-known (and still active) New York Times correspondent had been invited to the Conference. I had known Flora when she and her husband Sidney Gruson were in Warsaw in 1947-48 while I was a staff member of a UN agency working to restore diagnostic and vaccine production laboratories. Upon returning to the West after the meeting, Flora wrote a highly critical article on Pugwash in the New York Times for holding a meeting in Communist and repressive Poland. Dorothy and I drafted a letter refuting Flora's article which the Times also published. Part of this letter is quoted in the biography.

During her tenure as president of Pugwash, Dorothy requested all living Nobel scientists to sign a Pugwash Declaration against nuclear weapons. One hundred and eleven of them did so (including interestingly enough Richard Feynman who apparently never lent his name to any other political statement).

This review cannot do justice to the richness of detail provided by the Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life, which show science and scientists at their best as well as the often difficult route they had to travel to reach such eminence as described in this book. This is a slice of history that Pugwashites should not miss.