Polly Porter, crystallography pioneer

A framed portrait of Polly Porter

Source: Photograph © Principal and Fellows of Somerville College, Oxford/Frame © Swindler & Swindler @ Foli

Marelene and Geoff Rayner-Canham examine one of Dorothy Hodgkin’s mentors, who never studied at school or university

Everyone ‘knows’ that the pioneering female x-ray crystallographer was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, 1964 Nobel laureate in chemistry. However, she was not the pioneering female crystallographer: that honour goes to Polly Porter. In fact, Porter was one of Hodgkin’s mentors as Guy Dodson, once Hodgkin’s post-doc, later wrote in her obituary: ‘She was anxious to return to crystallography. She was greatly encouraged in this by Dr Polly Porter, a Research Fellow at Somerville, who had worked for years measuring and cataloguing crystals.’

Porter was a leading expert on the morphology of inorganic crystals. When Hodgkin needed to report crystallographic measurements in the 1950s, it was Porter who provided them. Solely on the basis of her research work, Porter was awarded BSc and DSc degrees by Oxford University. Yet she had never attended school , nor completed any university courses. So, who was this Dr Polly Porter who mentored Hodgkin and why is she barely known today?