The Royal Society’s approach to the Wolfson Foundation, led by its Nobel-Prize winning President Sir Cyril Hinshelwood (1897-1967), coincided with the organisation’s Tercentenary Appeal in 1959-1960. What followed was a fascinating negotiation during which the Society gradually refined its thinking about the needs of science at the time – moving from a very general request for support, through an argument centred on grant-making to International Relations activities, to (by early 1960) a fully-funded Research Chair.
That Chair was endowed by the huge donation of a £200,000 fund by the Wolfson Foundation. According to a draft of the press announcement on this benefaction, the intention was that the professorship should be held “by a distinguished British scientist who will devote the whole of his time to research…The first holder who has yet to be appointed will work in the physical sciences or their borderline with biology”.
‘His time’ turned out to be ‘her time’ because the inaugural appointment went to the Oxford-based chemist and X-ray crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin FRS (1910-1984). Despite her very obvious research achievements, Hodgkin had been no more than a university demonstrator in the years 1946-1955 and was then promoted to a readership. The Wolfson Professorship, coming in 1960, elevated her to a more appropriate status and, crucially, gave her financial independence.
Evidence for the wisdom of both the Wolfson grant and the Society’s appointment decision came within four years, when Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the first British woman to be so honoured. The Wolfson Chair also facilitated one of her greatest achievements, the elucidation of the molecular structure of insulin, which she had first photographed in 1935 and finally modelled in 1969, with Guy Dodson FRS (1937-2012), Mamannamana Vijayan (b.1941) and others in her laboratory.