Bench Space

Mary Beard

  • Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life by Georgina Ferry
    Granta, 425 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 1 86207 167 5

Women scientists – even the most distinguished of them – have a notoriously hard time. In feminist mythology at least, plagiarism by their male colleagues, belated recognition (if recognition at all) and early death (something to do with all that radiation) regularly combine to outweigh the charisma that might attach to scientific discovery. The paradigm case is Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer at 37 and was posthumously written out of the story of the discovery of DNA, in which she had played a crucial part. James Watson’s outrageously self-heroising Double Helix systematically ridiculed and patronised ‘Rosy’s’ contributions to the work (‘Rosy’, needless to say, was a diminutive she never used herself), while at the same time portraying her as aggressive, ambitious, unsocialised, unimaginative and unfeminine. Her first appearance in The Double Helix sets the tone. Discussing the awkward relations between Franklin, a Cambridge graduate and post-doctoral crystallographer, and her London laboratory head, Maurice Wilkins, Watson writes:

By choice she did not emphasise her feminine qualities. Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not. There was never lipstick to contrast with her straight black hair, while at the age of 31 her dresses showed all the imagination of English bluestocking adolescents. So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother ... Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place.

In the book’s epilogue, Watson offered a partial recantation (‘my initial impressions of her ... were often wrong’); but the mud stuck, as he must have known it would. And it prompted the predictable response a few years later, when Anne Sayre, in Rosalind Franklin and DNA, turned the arguments completely on their head to present her (just as misleadingly, I suspect) as the brains behind the whole DNA enterprise and a martyr to the cause of women’s science.

The battles are rarely so public, the stakes rarely so high as they were in the race for DNA. But in account after account of scientific women, we find much the same themes, albeit in a lower key. In the case of Honor Fell, a pioneer in tissue culture and the mastermind behind the development of the Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge, ‘the honours due to her took some time to materialise’ (as Joan Mason’s biographical essay nicely puts it). The same was true of Marjory Stephenson, the distinguished microbiologist, who worked in Cambridge for decades before being given a University lecturership in 1947, having been made one of the first female fellows of the Royal Society two years earlier (she, too, was to die of cancer, in 1948, aged 57). Fellowships of the Royal Society had been open to women since 1919, but in a series of ignominious wrangles it managed to fail to elect a woman for more than twenty years. In the end, J.B.S. Haldane, writing in the Daily Worker, had to stoop – ironically – to the argument that if they could offer fellowships to Indians, surely they could not ‘exclude women indefinitely’.

The women themselves have sometimes been part of the problem. Or, at least, male scientific culture has succeeded in disseminating its masculinist norms among female scientists. Honor Fell, for example, insisted that, for a woman, a successful career in experimental science was incompatible with marriage, let alone motherhood. (There still are women scientists in Cambridge who can be heard to argue along these lines – not infrequently in the same breath as denying the existence of any discrimination against women in science.) Rosalind Franklin’s pressure for change seems to have been limited to well-grounded but ineffectual complaints against the segregated common rooms for academic staff at King’s College, London: the women’s drab and pokey, the men’s predictably well-appointed. She may have been just as unworldly and out of touch as Watson’s cruelly depicted victim.

The same story can of course be told of women in the arts and humanities. But there are significant differences. The bare minimum for women in the arts is a good library and a room of their own (you can write your way into history with not much more – however unattractive an option it might be). Women scientists, on the other hand, are inevitably constrained by the institutional sexism of male laboratory culture and the male science ‘barons’ who for most of this century have controlled the Royal Society, the funding bodies and major research units. Quite simply, they need what is now called ‘bench space’. It is surely this, more than any natural predisposition, that has given scientific women a bigger role in the worlds of botany and fossil-collecting than in mind-expanding, big-spending (and prestigious) particle physics. This factor is recognised in my own (women’s) college library, where, in a particularly subversive act of cataloguing, Edith Holden’s Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady has been granted the same classmark as the biographies of Einstein and the memoirs of local Nobel Prize-winners from Rutherford to Mott.

In Georgina Ferry’s account, the career of Dorothy Hodgkin (née Crowfoot) stands at first sight as a cheering contrast to all this, a stunning series of timely successes on all fronts – from crystallography (notably in isolating the crystalline structures of penicillin and vitamin B12) to marriage and child-bearing. Brought up very comfortably by largely absentee parents (her father was a director of education in British Egypt and the Sudan, and later head of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem), she began her professional career with that small, glamorous clique of prewar leftist scientists gathered around J.D. Bernal. (It was always said that they spent their off-duty hours campaigning for workers’ rights and against militarism – while energetically sleeping with each other, or at any rate with Bernal.) She was soon headhunted back to Oxford by her old college, Somerville, which proved an extraordinarily supportive employer; so much so, that when she married and very soon became pregnant, they went to the lengths of offering her paid maternity leave, so that she could continue her work. (It was the first time anyone in Oxford had even thought of such a thing.) The cook, cleaner, housekeeper and nanny – and later, scholarships to Eton – helped, too, of course. A memorable photograph of Hodgkin in 1947, aged just 37, beaming and surrounded by her trio of tiny children, turns out to have been taken on the occasion of her election to the Royal Society: ‘FRS and mother of three,’ as the caption runs. The congratulations she received dwelt, sometimes with double-edged awe, on her brilliant combination of family life and academic distinction: ‘I think it magnificent that you manage to combine looking after a family with research, not to mention university teaching,’ wrote Alan Hodgkin, her cousin by marriage, and later to be one of those hugely powerful Cambridge science barons. ‘I complain when I have to wash the dishes of an evening.’

The stream of honours went on flowing, unstopppably, right up through the OM in 1965 almost until the moment of her death in 1994, at a respectable 84. By her own account, she became increasingly blasée about the whole honours game. She had at first been minded to refuse the OM, assuming, as she wrote to her husband, that the black-rimmed envelope from the Queen brought merely the offer of a (take-it-or-leave-it) DBE. Apart from a nasty breast abscess after child number one, the only setback in this long career to which Ferry devotes more than a couple of lines is the uncomfortable delay in the award of a Nobel Prize. There was clearly a false alarm or two – and a period in the late Fifties when, it appears, the whole Hodgkin household rushed eagerly for the mail each morning in search of that tell-tale Swedish postmark. It finally arrived in 1964, for her work on penicillin and vitamin B12. The Observer greeted the announcement by calling her an ‘affable-looking housewife’; the local paper from her home village with the headline ‘Nobel Prize for former Norfolk girl!’

Despite this popular image, however, and Ferry’s best efforts to sustain it, we get glimpses throughout the book of a quite different version of the Hodgkin story. Ferry is a devoted exponent of the ‘biography as teleology’ style of life-writing: a question on ‘the repeating pattern in Persian style’ set in the Design and Decorative Composition paper in Hodgkin’s School Certificate becomes ‘oddly prophetic’ of her adult work in crystallography; as does her early interest in the design and restoration of late Roman floor mosaics. She is also committed, with sometimes wilful optimism, to a narrative in which nothing serious ever goes wrong. Even the unhappy divorce of Hodgkin’s sister Joan is here deemed to have been ultimately ‘ideal all round’ – ideal anyway for Dorothy, who acquired an unpaid housekeeper when Joan and her children moved in. All the same, Ferry lets slip enough to suggest, inadvertently, a very different image from the tough but saintly supermum, devoted wife, inspiring teacher, loyal colleague and brilliant experimentalist.

This other Hodgkin was ruthlessly single-minded in pursuit of professional success: how else do you win a Nobel Prize? Though she looked after her research students with care (they were, after all, working on her own projects), she had little time for the average undergraduate. Tutorials were close to the bottom of her list of priorities (she ‘described them somewhat dismissively as “seeing girls” ’); they were ill-prepared, often irrelevant and dull to the point of embarrassment. Her lectures were no better and barely attracted an audience (‘she found it difficult to inject life into the drier fare of student courses’ is Ferry’s generous way of putting it). The best that could be said about her speech at the Nobel awards is that it was ‘lucid, if somewhat technical’. She kept an equally safe distance, apparently, from the administrative tasks that underpin any laboratory, college or university: sheltering under the excuse of her Wolfson Research Professorship, she claimed on retirement that she had not sat on a committee for 15 years.

There are also a good many hints that the glowing picture of personal fulfilment combined with professional success was not quite accurate. Sometimes this is simply a question of the way Ferry has chosen to tell the story. On one occasion in the mid-Forties, Hodgkin attempted to barge into a closed session of the Alembic Club (the Oxford University chemistry society, which was then restricted to men), ‘whereupon her old tutor Freddy Brewer picked her up bodily and carried her out again’. It is impossible now to reconstruct the reactions that greeted this incident, or the emotions (mixed no doubt) of those involved. Ferry, appealing to an eye-witness, insists that ‘it was all very good-humoured’; but it’s hard not to see it also as an appalling humiliation of a female colleague by the male scientific establishment at play – and hard not to be struck by its similarity to Rosalind Franklin’s unhappy struggles against the segregated common rooms at King’s College, London.

Sometimes Ferry seems concerned to keep events and relationships which would offer an alternative picture of the Hodgkin ménage as far out of the limelight as she dare. Dorothy’s marriage to Thomas Hodgkin was, as Ferry repeatedly asserts, supremely happy; and so indeed it may have been. Thomas was clearly charismatic, idiosyncratic and very funny; an engagingly old-fashioned socialist (the sort that could still send his children to Eton), he fell foul of the University authorities when he was Director of the Oxford Extramural Delegacy ‘over his tendency to fill all tutorial appointments with members of the Communist Party’ and ended up as the director of the Institute of African Studies in Nkrumah’s Ghana. Dying of emphysema in the late Seventies, he embarked on an extraordinary verse autobiography, Don Tomás, a clever parody of Byron’s parodic Don Juan. He lived to complete only three cantos out of the projected 12, but had already made it clear that the work was to be dedicated to ‘its heroine’, not Dorothy but ‘BJ’ Lynd. Of course, dying men sometimes write very odd things. But Thomas had been engaged to BJ as an undergraduate; and although their marriage was called off, they kept in contact – so closely that for the last twenty-five years or so of his life he appears to have been living part-time with BJ. Dorothy, with a splendid show of spirit, called her in to help with the nursing during his last illness, so that she could go away. Ferry mentions this relationship, briefly and only in the last chapter of the book, though it was almost certainly a major factor in Dorothy’s calculations about the balance between private and public life, and her investment respectively in home and work – just as Dorothy’s devotion to crystallography was no doubt a factor in Thomas’s own decisions about where and with whom he would spend his time.

None of this is to suggest that Ferry has got Hodgkin simply ‘wrong’. The practice of biography is, after all, not so much about unearthing the facts of a life as about selection, making choices, negotiating a point of view, defining a hierarchy of perspectives, a way of seeing. It does raise the question, however, of just how fragile the boundary is between those who enter history as failures and victims and those who enter it as triumphant successes. All lives, as lived, are both failures and successes. The paraded differences between the Franklins and the Hodgkins in the mythology of women’s science are as much to do with the discursive practices of biography as they are with objective criteria of success. Another set of biographical priorities, or another biographer, could give us a Hodgkin who looked, for all her prizes, much more like a victimised Franklin.

There is also the more general question of what we imagine scientific biography of this kind is for. One common theory draws a sharp distinction between literary and scientific life stories. The literary life is individual and unique: had Shakespeare, Austen or Joyce not lived, no one else would have written Hamlet, Emma or Ulysses. In science, by contrast, it is only a matter of chronological priority: if Einstein had not discovered relativity, then before long someone else would have done so. In this sense, the scientific biography is really about science: the apparent subject is merely a vehicle for the theory and the biography of Hodgkin merely an episode in the history of crystallography. Yet the more the rhetoric of scientific discovery is recognised as being crucial, and the more we see that no one else’s theory of relativity could ever have been exactly the same as Einstein’s (with all the consequences that would have followed from that), the more important the individual scientist must become as a focus of historical attention. How and why did they come to think and write as they did? How (and how plausibly) did they frame the speculations and theories we now treat as ‘fact’? Why did Hodgkin come to work on these particular crystalline structures in her own particular way? And why did crystallography become an area of achievement that admitted women as its stars?

When Hodgkin was in hospital, close to death, her younger son, spotting the expertise, and gender, of several of the visitors gathered round her bed, is supposed to have asked: ‘What is the collective noun for women professors of crystallography?’ Why so many? And what, if anything, did his mother have to do with that phenomenon? Ferry tends to duck these questions. But she hints at a variety of answers: from the qualities demanded of successful crystallographers (extraordinary dexterity, immense patience and a very high level of narrowly technical skill – still traditionally ‘female’ virtues) to the part played by Hodgkin herself as role model and patron to generations of female followers. That, of course, is how academic genealogy regularly works, and how women – once they get a foot in the door – colonise new subjects. In Hodgkin’s case, however, one cannot help feeling that her 15-year absence from all committees, during what should have been the most politically powerful stage of her career, made her a much less effective patron of other women in the field than she might have been; and one cannot help suspecting, too, that her own single-mindedness did not encourage her to look after, as assiduously as she might, those struggling up behind. As Honor Fell had earlier remarked of career patterns in science (and particularly their incompatibility with marriage): ‘he travels fastest who travels alone.’