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Laureation address - Professor Eleanor Dodson

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science

Laureation by Professor James Naismith
School of Chemistry
Wednesday 23 June 2010


Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart and Professor Eleanor DodsonVice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Eleanor Joy Dodson, Fellow of The Royal Society, for the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

The most important scientific research is about being first with an idea or way of doing things that changes the course of science. These are the metaphorical shoulders that we climb upon. Protein crystallography is a scientific discipline that tells us the shape of the molecules of life, and it has revolutionised science and medicine. The treatment of AIDS with inhibitors of the HIV virus, leukaemia with kinase blockers, understanding the ribosome in which all proteins are made, new drugs and vaccines for flu and understanding foot and mouth virus are a handful of examples of protein crystallography’s impact on our lives. Today, we can also count chemistry students nervous of my exam questions.

Newton, in a burst of uncharacteristic modesty paraphrasing Bernard of Chartres said: “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Most scientists stand on the shoulders of others. It is only a very few special people that provide these shoulders. Today we are honouring Eleanor Dodson, such a person.

Eleanor MacPherson was born in rural Australia to Scottish farming stock and graduated with a degree in mathematics and philosophy in 1958 from the University of Melbourne. Visiting the UK, Eleanor replied to an advert for a technical assistant in the Oxford laboratory of the late Dorothy Hodgkin who was to win a Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work on penicillin and vitamin B12. Eleanor applied, not because Dorothy’s lab was pioneering the study of important biological molecules by X-ray crystallography, but because it seemed fun. Scientists in Dorothy’s lab would work by hand to build models of molecules and fit them into contour maps of electron density. The maps were drawn by hand by technical assistants; there were no printers and no computer displays.

One day Dorothy took Eleanor aside expressing concern about her artistic ability. But, Dorothy continued brightly, since Eleanor was a real mathematician she would be the ideal person to visit the lab of Rossmann and Blow in Cambridge to learn their new approaches to solving protein structures. Eleanor felt it unwise to explain that her undergraduate degree was considerably heavier in philosophy and english than mathematics, but Dorothy saw the hidden strengths in people. Whether it was love of Oxford or an attraction to fellow antipodean Guy Dodson who was working in Dorothy’s lab or simply fear of drawing, Eleanor made a choice, she threw herself into the unknown.

Eleanor, who does not a have a PhD, proves again the outsider can be the most transformational. Seeing further, she realised that much of the work going on then was not really biological science, rather it was work which could and should be done by computers. The huge problem was there were no agreed standards and almost no programs for the computers to use. Eleanor became the focal point in Oxford for these developments that led in 1974 to the founding by her and others of a computing cooperative, which in 1979 became CCP4. (CCP4 stands for collaborative computing project number 4 and who says the 70s lacked panache!) CCP4 is today a cooperative of UK labs that is one of the UK’s most successful technology transfer stories, it generates over £1M per year in partnership agreements with companies across the globe. The key to its and Eleanor’s success has been to turn half described ideas and ill defined theories into practical programs that work everywhere for everyone. Alongside this central contribution Eleanor has made major contributions to the theory and practice of methods used to determine the atomic structures of macromolecules, such as molecular replacement, phasing and refinement. She has been a magnet for other crystallographers who came to work with her at York. She has been recognised by election to The Royal Society in 2003, by the award of the premier prizes of the European Crystallography Association in 2005 and American Crystallography Association in 1998. She has taught generations of scientists, is known across the world to students, post-docs and group leaders not only for her almost daily contributions of tips, solution and advice to the crystallography bulletin board, but for a unique personal warmth. Her house in York has been the scene of the deepest arguments about science, the rowdiest celebrations of discoveries, a meeting place for a world-wide community and a drop-in encouragement service for dispirited scientists.

Eleanor is one of only just over a hundred female fellows of The Royal Society and the first woman elected from York University. Like other female crystallographers, such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Katherine Lonsdale (the first woman elected to the Royal Society), Eleanor has combined family life (four children: Vicki; Richard; Philip and Tom. Five if you count Guy, also a distinguished scientist and Fellow of the Royal Society, for whom absent minded professor is an instruction not a sobriquet) with scientific achievement. Her trademark has been self-effacing modesty, an unwillingness to tell others how to live their lives and a friendly helping hand, forever extended.

Eleanor is special, without her there would be no CCP4, a poorer theoretical landscape in crystallography and many fewer ground-breaking advances. Other countries and fields not blessed by Eleanor have failed to replicate protein crystallography’s explosive success. Eleanor has been a giant in the field, she has provided the practical shoulders upon which protein crystallography has largely stood for thirty years.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her singular contribution to science, I invite you to confer on Professor Eleanor Joy Dodson the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.