be wondering at this stage how many women have actually received the Nobel
famous, needless to say, was Marie Curie, who with her husband Pierre won
the Physics Prize in 1903 for their discovery of radium, only two years
after the Nobel Foundation was established. Marie, in fact, was the first
woman to win any Nobel Prize, just as she had been the first woman in
history to teach at the Sorbonne. She won the Chemistry Prize, too, in
the Nobel Foundation conferred its Chemistry Prize on Dorothy Crowfoot
Hodgkin (1910-94). It was the fourteenth time a Prize had been awarded
to a woman, in this case “for her determination by x-ray techniques of the
structures of biologically important molecules”. Those crucial molecules
included penicillin, cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12) and insulin.
have a look at Hodgkin’s work on vitamin B12.
late 1920s the American physician William B. Castle had done research on
the cause of pernicious anaemia, which in those days was usually fatal. He
discovered that two substances were involved: one that is produced in the
body (which he called “the intrinsic factor”, still known in medicine as
“intrinsic factor”, these days without the the) and one that is
supplied in the diet (“the extrinsic factor”, which today we call vitamin
B12). Intrinsic factor, a glycoprotein generated in the gastric
juices, forms a complex with vitamin B12 that remains intact,
so protecting the vitamin from digestion as it passes through the
gastrointestinal tract and facilitates its absorption into the body via
the small intestine.
enough vitamin B12, the body is unable to synthesize DNA
properly. In turn this affects red blood cell maturation in the bone
marrow (the cells divide but their nuclei remain immature). In other
words, B12 avitaminosis (deficiency) — and therefore pernicious
anaemia — is due to decreased B12 absorption rather than a poor
diet, in contrast to iron deficiency, say.
was isolated in 1948, and later that year Hodgkin got an opportunity to
take on the task of determining the precise configuration of its
constituent atoms when the Glaxo laboratories sent some crystals to Oxford
University, where she did most of her research.
her eight years. Penicillin had been a complex molecule to analyse in
1944-5, but vitamin B12 was far more challenging, having about
100 atoms to penicillin’s 17, though no one knew that when she began.
Using an electronic computer, Hodgkin was the first person to apply its
capabilities to X-ray crystallography. But because computers were in their
infancy each calculation took several hours.
Hodgkin was able to reveal the structure of vitamin B12, and
other researchers began applying themselves to the challenge of
synthesising it. These days it is administered via intramuscular
injection, obviously because a pill taken into the stomach would defeat
the purpose of absorption.
Rosalind Franklin, Dorothy Hodgkin maintained a lifelong passion for her
chosen field of X-ray crystallography, but of course she was working in
this line of work nearly two decades before Franklin. Indeed, when she
began her research career, the ground rules for interpreting X-ray data
had still to be worked out. Often it was largely experimentation, and in
many cases she had to grow her own crystals, photograph them, then
interpret the photos. If no solution emerged, she would have to start
Franklin, however, Hodgkin had no trouble fitting in with her male
colleagues, whom she later described as having been “particularly nice and
helpful to me as a lone girl”. During her career at Oxford she did a large
amount of teaching and tutoring, and is remembered as very encouraging to
younger scientists in the field. One of her students, incidentally, was a
certain Margaret Roberts, later Thatcher, the only British prime minister
to date with a degree in science. (Mind you, some have noticed her
failure, despite her education, adequately to support scientific research
— but that’s another story, best ignored in Bikwil).
Dorothy Hodgkin helped found the Pugwash Conference on Science and World
Affairs, and became a tireless worker for world peace.
hands, crippled by arthritis from a young age, have become famous by dint
of being drawn by the most prominent sculptor of the 20th century, Henry
anaemia, then, is now readily dealt with, thanks in part to the labours of
Dorothy Hodgkin. Management of the disease involves a monthly injection of
vitamin B12 that has to be continued for life. Most patients
improve quickly, although the inability of the stomach to produce
intrinsic factor persists. One of the long-term effects of untreated
pernicious anaemia is a sort of dementia, the symptoms of which are also
eased by the regular B12 shots, though the neurologic damage is seldom
of course, the news is not nearly so good with the most common form of
dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.
with the recent prominence given to Parkinson’s Disease because of the
problems of actor Michael J. Fox, Alzheimer’s came to the world’s
attention because of publicity in the 1980s surrounding the case of a film
star. Rita Hayworth (1918-87) suffered from the disease for the last 15
years of her life. Alzheimer’s, however, had long been known among the
medical fraternity, having been described as early as 1901 by the Munich
neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) after whom the disease is
fear-provoking maladies have been named after the doctors who first
described them — such as Barrett’s Oesophagus (Núman R. Barrett,
1903-1979), Bright’s Disease (Richard Bright, 1789-1858), Down[’s]
Syndrome (J. Langdon Down, 1828 - 1896), Hodgkin’s Disease (quite a
separate Hodgkin, this one being Thomas Hodgkin, 1798-1866), Huntington’s
Chorea (George Huntington, 1850-1916), Parkinsonism (James
Parkinson, 1755-1824) — but none has captured the broad public imagination
as apprehensively as Alzheimer’s. Currently, it affects 3% of the world’s
population by age 75 and its incidence doubles every 5 years up to age 95.
often the case, though, it was not the doctor in question who named
Alzheimer’s disease. Originally, in a lecture, Alzheimer called it merely
“a peculiar disease of the cerebral cortex”. Shortly afterwards the
condition became known as “presenile dementia” (or “premature dementia”),
but in 1907, at the suggestion of Emil Kraepelin, it was given the
designation it bears today.
(1855-1926) was a German psychiatrist who was born in Neustrelitz and
educated at the University of Würzburg. He also studied in Leipzig under
Wilhelm Wundt (the founder of modern psychology, 1832-1920). In 1891 he
was appointed Professor of Psychiatry at Heidelberg University, and later
(1903) to a similar post at Münich University, where he also directed a
driven by the belief that mental and psychological problems have a
physical basis (namely deficits in structure or neurobiological
functioning), Kraepelin inevitably imparted a quality of medical diagnosis
to subsequent psychological methods. Many people misapply this flavour
even today by using terminology that includes phrases like “mental
illness”, “treatment of patients” and “curing mental disease”.
treating psychology as a physical science, Kraepelin did advance its
technical capabilities at that time, and the pioneer achievements that
followed from his approach were numerous.
investigations he carried out, for example, were an analysis of the
fatigue process and a study of the effect of alcohol on the mind. It was
he who coined the terms "neurosis" and "psychosis", and after analysing
thousands of case histories established the clinical pictures of dementia
praecox, now known as “schizophrenia”, and of manic-depressive psychosis,
more commonly called “bipolar disorder” today. It was Kraepelin, too, in
fact, who first explained the fundamental distinction between those two
illnesses. He has also been called “the father of modern
individual researches and others were ultimately incorporated into his
most significant contribution to the field, which was his classification
system of psychological disorders, published in 1896. The first
comprehensive nosological (disease classification) system for psychology,
it incorporated all that he and other researchers had learnt during the
19th century in the differentiation of a multitude of psychological
the theory of unconscious mental activity proposed by the psychoanalytical
school, Kraepelin concerned himself solely with diagnostic taxonomy. He
classified mental diseases in terms of their cause, symptoms, course,
final stage, and pathological anatomical findings, and his book was so
influential that in Kraepelin’s lifetime that it ran to nine editions and
became for many years the standard psychology textbook. It served in fact
as the foundation for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and the
International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which are the standard
reference texts used by psychiatrists today.