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Published On January 27, 2020

BASIC RESEARCH

Women’s Work

A pioneer in protein structures also left a legacy for mothers in the sciences.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was one of the first female scientists to receive a Nobel Prize. Yet another, lesser-known career landmark also casts a long shadow: She took one of the first paid maternity leaves in scientific research.

In the early 1930s, Hodgkin was a teaching and research fellow at Somerville College of Oxford University. She had been captivated by chemistry since her primary school days, and crystals particularly interested her. Two decades earlier, physicist Max von Laue discovered that the diffraction of an X-ray through a crystal could provide a glimpse into the shape of the molecules within. Though the technique was still considered experimental, Hodgkin pushed through the massive calculations it required. After some early success, she acquired insulin—still a novel substance—and wrote about the first time she saw images from the crystals she had prepared: “The moment … when I developed the photograph and saw the central pattern of minute reflections was probably the most exciting in my life.”

By 1938, Hodgkin had fully focused on proteins, which presented a daunting challenge in their varied structures. She had begun another momentous undertaking as well, having become pregnant with the first of her three children. Few female fellows were married at the time, and none had become a parent during their fellowship. But the college had never before had a faculty member like Hodgkin. Unusually progressive for the era, members of the college thought, according to a letter from Hodgkin to her husband, that her resignation “... would be a bad precedent and might mean that future married fellows would consider they couldn’t have children and they didn’t approve of interfering with the course of nature.”

With the approval of Somerville’s female principal, she was given full pay for leave during an academic term (£100) plus sick leave. She gave an enthusiastic speech to Britain’s Royal Society about insulin molecules a month before her December due date, pondered them during her time at home with her new baby, and was back to photographing crystals in August.

Hodgkin had two more children, and Somerville adopted a formal maternity leave policy upon her third pregnancy. She continued to stretch boundaries all the while; in the 1940s, spurred by wartime demand for a drug with seemingly miraculous potential, she worked on the structure of penicillin, a puzzle that took her four years to solve. Knowledge of the drug’s structure led to development of semi-synthetic derivatives of penicillin and an array of other new treatments. Later, when Hodgkin was herself elected to the Royal Society, a colleague wrote to her, “If a woman [Fellow of the Royal Society] can have three children, anyone might do anything.”

Hodgkin paid forward her maternity leave benefit, establishing a daycare center at Somerville with some of her Nobel Prize money. Somerville remains one of the few colleges in the university that provides onsite child care, and it sponsors a scholarship in Hodgkin’s name for women who return to science after taking a career break.

Those incentives still make a difference. In the STEM fields, 43% of women and 23% of men do not return to work full time after the birth of their first child, according to a PNAS study published in March 2019. Those rates are much higher than in other fields, thanks to a longstanding, albeit narrow, view of what it takes to be an excellent scientist or engineer. “The ideal worker norm—one who is completely dedicated to one’s work, with no competing responsibility—is really supercharged within STEM,” says lead author Erin Cech, a professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The statistics are similarly stark in medicine. Almost 75% of women physicians at least consider leaving full-time medicine six years after completing their training, per a survey JAMA published in August. The early-career scale-back brought on by motherhood contributes to later inequities in salary and leadership positions. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends at least six weeks of fully paid parental leave, yet of 91 ranked academic medical institutions—those ostensibly on the front lines of advancing human health and scientific discovery—just over half offer any paid leave at all. While Hodgkin showed that supporting women during pregnancy can pay dividends for science, that message has yet to echo in every corner of the field.

Dispatches

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