Rheumatoid Arthritis and the Nobel Prize Winning Chemist

In the lengthy list of Copley Medal recipients from the Royal Society, one of the oldest and most prestigious intellectual honors in existence, is the name of Dorothy Hodgkin, a chemist who had rheumatoid arthritis. She is found in the midst of such recognizable figures as Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Francis Crik, James Watson, Stephen Hawking, and Peter Higgs.1

Throughout her brilliant career, Dr. Hodgkin pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography; a method of molecular and atomic analysis originally used to decipher the chemical structure of crystals. Dr. Hodgkin is most famous for extending the use of X-ray crystallography to decipher complex biological molecules such as penicillin, insulin, and vitamin b12. Her work on the structure of insulin took over thirty years, and the completion of that project came after she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964.2

Interestingly, the protein that is the target of inhibition for many biologic DMARDs, tumor necrosis factor alpha, has also been three-dimensionally structured using x-ray crystallography.3 What I find equally fascinating, is that an advanced form of this technology, macromolecular crystallography, is currently used for determining the interactions of proteins and pharmaceutical drugs in structural biology: “This methodology offers details of protein-ligand interactions at levels of resolution virtually unmatched by any other technique, and this approach holds the promise of novel, more effective, safer and cheaper drugs.”4 I find it sublime that Dorothy was an early pioneer in the use of X-ray crystallography for complex organic compounds, and that such methods would eventually lead to a better understanding of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

Undeniably Dorothy Hodgkin was a genius. She began her formal studies in chemistry at Summerville College, one of the first women’s only colleges in Oxford. She pursued her Ph.D. at Cambridge, under the tutelage of another very famous scientist, John Desmond Bernal. During the 1940’s Hodgkin would return to Oxford as a fellow and tutor, where she would teach chemistry to future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The life of Dorothy Hodgkin is far more compelling than what I have touched on. Unfortunately she did not write an autobiography, though she left behind a huge collection of letters and memoirs. Some authors attempted to write a biography in her later years, but Hodgkin with ironic humor called such efforts “attempts on my life,” and did not get behind the projects. Since her passing in 1994, there have been many awards, lectures, and honors in her memory. In 1998, science writer Georgina Ferry wrote the only extensive biography that I am aware of. The book is simply titled, “Dorothy Hodgkin, A Life.”

The book is quite wonderful in my opinion. It is rigorously researched with an immense range of background and details from primary sources, family members, and close friends.

The book is more ambitious than just documenting the life of Dorothy. A Life brings together the social and political milieu of the time that Hodgkin and her family lived, and speaks to a lot of the political unrest of the mid 20th century, including the changing culture of education, and the difficulty that many women encounter in the sciences. It also brings to light the inner workings of research programs and the politics and financial networks that underlie the industry. There are many other famous scientists in its pages as well, like Linus Pauling, and the reader becomes acquainted with a fascinating group of individuals and their quirks and personalities. Though it is a biography of a single individual, I felt as if I were submerged in the time period in which she lived. Ferry does an excellent job of explaining the science in easily understood layman’s terms as well.

Sadly, Dr. Hodgkin was eventually crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, and spent her later years in a wheelchair with severe deformities. The pictures I have found online are both heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. After she retired from formal research, she continued to travel, to promote science, and to reach out to many underdeveloped research programs in third world countries using her influence to bring support to many who would otherwise not receive it. She was an advocate of international peace and human rights, and traveled extensively to promote those causes. For me, reading about her life has been a deep source of encouragement as I deal with my own difficulties of RA. She did not write much about her struggles with the disease, but many of the photographs one can find tell a powerful story.

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