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UEL academic celebrates her Nobel Prize-winning grandmother on International Women’s Day

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Professor Kate Hodgkin's grandmother is the only British woman to have won a Nobel Prize for science

By Lee Pinkerton

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to highlight women who have inspired others – authors, actors, politicians, freedom fighters. 

For one lecturer at the University of East London (UEL), her inspiration is her grandmother. Who just happens to be a Nobel Prize winner.

Kate Hodgkin is a Professor of Cultural History at UEL. Her grandmother, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1964. She was just the third woman to win a science Nobel Prize, and she remains the only British woman to do so. 

Professor Hodgkin’s research involved identifying the structure of complex proteins, including vitamin B12 and insulin. Her later work on x-ray crystallography on the structure of insulin in diabetes research, conducted with Chinese collaborators, was extraordinary for its time. 

Kate Hodgkin shared objects and mementos from her grandmother’s life during an International Women’s Day exhibition at UEL’s Stratford campus which celebrated inspiring women. UEL also hosted exhibitions, discussions and networking opportunities at its Docklands and University Square Stratford campuses.

Though Kate Hodgkin is, like her grandmother, an academic, she chose not to go into science. 

She said, “None of my grandmother’s female descendants have gone into science. There are quite a few academics, but all historians. However, several of her male descendants have become scientists, so in a way we’re replicating that larger pattern that women don’t see themselves as scientists.”

For Kate Hodgkin, her choice of a career path was dictated by what she enjoyed. 

She said, “I studied the subjects I loved and found easy to do, and those were things that were based on the written word. I didn’t engage with science so intuitively.

“When we were young we were all quite politically minded. And if you want to change the world, you tend to go down the humanities route. 

“I think when you’re a teenager it’s easier to feel that a subject like history, or politics, or economics is addressing the everyday life of human beings and science can feel a bit abstract.”

Growing up, Kate Hodgkin knew that her grandmother was a famous scientist, but the true scale of those accomplishments wasn’t clear until she became older. Kate ended up working for her grandmother for a few months after graduating from university, helping to sort out her papers.

“When I was a child she was a bit of an abstract figure.  She was affectionate but she wasn’t in any sense a conventional kind of grandmother. You could see all the time that her brain was on the go.”