The Bookclub met on Monday 25 June 2018 and we had one our most lively debates yet!  With so many big issues, we nearly forgot to look at the menu and order our food!

Here’s what our members had to say …

The Book

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994) was renowned for her medically-important work on penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. Fully engaged with the political and social currents of her time, she participated in some of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century: women’s education; the globalisation of science; the rise and fall of communism; and international peace movements. A wife, mother and grandmother, she cared deeply about the wellbeing of individuals in all cultures.

Georgina Ferry’s biography of the only British female scientist to receive the Nobel Prize – Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life – was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize and the Marsh Biography Award.


The book garnered a whole mixture of opinions ranging from “Loved it!” to “Oh My Goodness! It was SO Boring”! Kirsten Ing was certainly the most impressed with the book being a self-declared lover of chemistry. Other members who had managed to finish it, including Chloe and Sue were somewhat put off by the amount of scientific detail included and admitted to skimming large sections. With not much background to what Dorothy’s area of expertise was (X-Ray Crystallography), much of it was lost on members without knowledge of that field of study. Kirsten Peto was probably the member with the largest dislike for the book having actively abandoned it at around 20% (always a tricky decision!).  Hannah also made it to 20% but for reasons of limited time rather than an aversion to the content. Margaret who also finished reading the book said that she did enjoy the book and found Dorothy’s life fascinating but did find the read somewhat ‘challenging’.

Almost everyone admitted that they found the amount of information about Dorothy’s personal life lacking. Some felt that although this detail did exist in parts, it was shoehorned around a significant amount of name-checking of fellow scientists and researchers (including her former student; Margaret Roberts better know by her married name of Thatcher!). A section towards the end of the book, which also focused on Dorothy’s international interests, did include a little more information, including some shocking revelations about her husband Thomas. This left Chloe and Sue in particular wanting to know more.  Margaret also wanted to have learnt more about her life living with crippling arthritis. Whilst her condition was referenced and it was noted that she didn’t appear to let it hold her back, it did again feel as though an opportunity to explore this aspect of her life was missed. It was however agreed that from the information that was presented, Dorothy did appear to be a kind woman with a ‘soft’ personality. Her insistence on ensuring that her colleagues, assistants and collaborators were all fairly credited for their work was, and perhaps still is, unusual in the scientific community. Saying this, Margaret commented that despite the overall feeling of her kind personality, the book failed to present much of her emotional state and Sue agreed that despite having read her biography, we still did not really know much about Dorothy the ‘person’. Certainly not as much as we all now know about Dorothy the ‘scientist’!

Hannah commented that from the portion that she had read, the book felt well written, especially considering that the author; Georgina Ferry, is a scientific writer and journalist rather than an experienced biographer or novelist. Chloe somewhat disagreed as whilst she felt that although the writing style itself didn’t grate or stand out to her as poor, she felt that the structure of the book could have been better considered. Whilst it was largely written in a chronological style, some sections such as the last few chapters felt like a different book.

It was noted that Dorothy had herself said that she hated the idea of anyone writing a biography of her life. She did start writing an autobiography but it remained only part complete by the time of her death. The book was compiled with the help of the notes for that project, her life’s copious correspondence (the majority of which she luckily hoarded) and the help of her daughter. It was felt by some that this could be the reason that the book was a little disparate with regards to the facts of her personal life and feelings.

Discussions largely continued to revolve around topics raised in the book such as Dorothy’s predominantly absentee parents who still clearly shaped her life, ambitions and assumption that she could go as far as she wished with her career despite her gender and the expectations and norms of society of the time. Kirsten Ing found her story to be inspiring in the face of the barriers face by Dorothy because of her gender although Chloe noted with interest that Dorothy herself was reported to have repeatedly stated throughout her life that she did not believe that she had ever encountered any obstacles as a result of being a woman. Indeed she continued her illustrious career right through her childbearing years with seemingly very little impact. This led to further discussion about her class, her privilege and whether she would have encountered more obstacles had domestic help and childcare not been so abundant and affordable, especially as she was effectively a single parent family for large periods of time.  This then led to a further discussion of absentee parents and how unusual or otherwise that would have been in the time.

The Verdict

Whilst opinion was divided to some extent, the median feeling was that the book was a tedious to read due to the large portions of scientific content and politics of her research, but that Dorothy Hogkins’ life was clearly fascinating; if only we had had the opportunity to read a bit more about it.  The book is certainly worth a read to find out more about her achievements but is best approached with the knowledge that  some sections may a little intense on the science front.

To find out more about Dorothy Hodgkin’s life, this BBC Radio 4 series based on her personal correspondence may be worth a listen. 

Overall Rating

5.25 Out of 10

About Bookclub

To find out more including how to become a member , please visit the Our Clubs page. Details of our latest and previous books are available here.

Importantly we’re not a scary intellectual Bookclub!

We read a wide range of different books including chick lit, biographies and other non-fiction, thrillers and the occasional classic. We do obviously chat about the books; what we liked, what we didn’t and sometimes segway into issues raised in the book. We don’t generally come armed with lists of high-brow questions! We also share recommendations of other books we’ve read and occasionally gather at someone’s house to watch a film or TV adaptation of something we’ve liked.

Overall we have a great time socialising and a bit of a discussion about the book. We all occasionally fail to actually read or finish the book but that’s no problem either, we still tend to turn up and find out what we’ve missed (or not as the case may be!) Most of all Book Club is a great opportunity to get to know a smaller, more intimate group of the East Dulwich WI.

How It Works

Each month one member brings a shortlist of books. We narrow down the books democratically using two round of voting. We generally select books at least 2 months in advance to give us ample opportunity to read them around our schedules.


Jaflong Tandoori
42 East Dulwich Road, London, SE22 9AX

There is absolutely no requirement to buy food or drink although most of us find we can’t resist the temptation! They do however cater easily for veggie, vegan and gluten free diets.


New Readers Welcome

For details please email Kirsten or Chloe. 

EDWI Bookclub: The Review – “Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life” by Georgina Ferry

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