Volume 91 Issue 36 | p. 49
Issue Date: September 9, 2013

Cover Stories: Nine For Ninety

Women’s Work

Department: Science & Technology | Collection: Life Sciences
Keywords: proteins, structural biology, crystallography

Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data played a pivotal role in James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick’s determination of DNA’s three-dimensional structure. Their failure to properly acknowledge her data may tempt one to assume that the world of structural biology has been unwelcoming to women.

That would be an error. The first person to show that protein crystals could diffract was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin of Oxford University, who went on to solve the structures of insulin and penicillin. In 1964, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her structure determination of vitamin B-12.

Kathleen Lonsdale, a crystallographer, showed benzene was flat. She was the first to use Fourier transforms to solve the X-ray crystal structure of a compound from diffraction data. She was also one of the first female members of the Royal Society.

Many other women have high-profile positions in structural biology. Add to the list Helen M. Berman, director of the Research Collaborating for Structural Bioinformatics’ Protein Data Bank, and Ada E. Yonath, who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her crystallographic studies of the ribosome, a mix of protein and RNA. “There do seem to be more women involved in crystallography than in other physical sciences,” Berman says. The question is, why?

Many researchers point to Hodgkin. As a professor in an undergraduate college at Oxford, she mentored small groups of students. Since the colleges were gender-segregated in her era, she would have mentored only undergraduate women, many of whom were enticed to work in her lab as graduate students, says Cambridge University structural biologist Thomas L. Blundell, who solved the structure of insulin as her graduate student. “She had a big impact. She wasn’t somebody who was openly furthering the aims of women. She just did. Women just came to her lab. But men came as well.” Many of her students, such as Barbara Low, Marjorie Harding, and others, went on to set up crystallography labs around the world.

And what was Hodgkin’s academic heritage? It can be traced back to the father of X-ray crystallography, William Bragg, who mentored both Lonsdale and John D. Bernal, who was Hodgkin’s doctoral adviser (as well as Max F. Perutz’ and John Kendrew’s). Bragg’s openness to having female doctoral students may have impressed Bernal when he himself was a student. Bernal certainly learned that his female graduate student peer—Lonsdale—could do excellent science, which may have inspired him to take on Hodgkin as a student. Later, Franklin moved to Bernal’s lab after her unpleasant experience with DNA, another sign that his lab welcomed women.

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