Professor Judith Ann Kathleen Howard
Doctor of Letters
13 July 2004 - Orator: Professor T.J. Simpson FRS
Chemistry is the study of molecules and the most important feature of any molecule is its structure - what type of atoms are present, how many of these there are - and how they are linked together. The properties of molecules depend entirely on their shape and so the study of structure is fundamental to the study of chemistry. As a result, many methods have been developed to allow us to determine structure. Of all these methods, the most precise and definitive is X-ray crystallography and it is my pleasure today, Mr Vice-Chancellor, to present to you, Professor Judith Howard, one of the World's most distinguished crystallographers. But, before going on to say something about our honorary graduand herself, I should say something about the art as well as the science of crystallography which may help you to appreciate the type of person we are dealing with today.
Many of you will have been X-rayed and will have seen the pictures of the bones of your arm or other parts of your anatomy which these produce. To obtain structures of molecules using X-rays, you must first produce crystals, a real black art as any of the chemists present today will tell you. You then very carefully and precisely, mount the crystal on a pinhead, and shine a very narrow beam of X-rays through it. The atoms in the crystal then deflect the beam according to how the atoms are arranged in the molecules and how the molecules are arranged in the crystal. This produces a pattern of spots on a photographic plate. Then by mysterious and obscure processes only really understood by crystallographers, this pattern can be interpreted to produce quite wonderful and beautiful three dimensional pictures of arrays, rows and columns of atoms from which the structure of the molecule becomes apparent. Now, it takes a very special breed of scientist to do this work and it is an area of science in which women dominate. Perhaps the most famous of them all was our own previous Chancellor, Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkin, of whom more in a moment!
Judith Howard or Judith Duckworth as she was then, was born in Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire. She began her University career in Bristol in 1963 and as a student I believe that her maiden name led to the inevitable sobriquet of "duckie", but it would take a much braver person than me to use that now. She arrived in Bristol at the same time as two other people who were also destined to have a profound impact on inorganic chemistry in Bristol - her fellow first-year student, now our Pro-Vice-Chancellor elect, one Selby Knox, and the even more notorious and imposing figure of Gordon Stone, the first Professor of Inorganic Chemistry in Bristol, and one of the most influential figures in UK and indeed world chemistry. As a final-year undergraduate student, Judith worked on the structure of a compound, tin tetra-iron-tetra carbonyl, which was the subject of her very first published work. This is instructive, as the Nobel Prize Laureate, Roald Hofmann extolled the significance of the discovery of this molecule in his Nobel Prize lecture when he was advancing his theories relating molecules in inorganic chemistry to those in organic chemistry. So even in these very first steps in her career she was involved in work of true significance. From Bristol she moved to Oxford to work as a postgraduate student in Dorothy Hodgkin's group. The nature of her work on neutron diffraction, mainly under the guidance of Terry Willis at the UK Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, meant that she saw rather little of Dorothy at the time, but it was the start of what was to become a close professional and personal friendship. She returned to Bristol in 1969 along with her husband David whom she had met as a medical student in Bristol. She worked initially as a postdoctoral researcher with another of her mentors, Peter Woodward, with whom she had carried out her undergraduate research project. Together they provided the vital structural support which underpinned the world-leading organometallic research for which Bristol was justly famed throughout the Gordon Stone era. As well as her work in association with this group she continued to develop her own interests which were focussed on developing methods for improving the precision of structures by using low temperatures to reduce thermal vibrations. She rose rapidly through the research career ladder in Bristol and when in 1991, the Department of Chemistry at the University of Durham had a vacancy for a Professor of Crystallography, she found that she was in the running. She of course consulted her friend and mentor Dorothy Hodgkin, and in Georgina Ferry's wonderful biography of Dorothy, Judith is quoted as saying -
"I told Dorothy that the Head of Department had said, ' Are you going to apply?' and I had said, 'No I don't think that I will.' It was a long way from home - 300 miles. And he said, 'Do you know any other women, because they're supposed to be good at that sort of thing - aren't they?' Somewhat incensed, I told Dorothy this, but she said, 'of course you must apply, don't let that sort of comment get in your way.' "
So she did, and the rest as they say is history, and her career has never looked back. Her laboratory in Durham rapidly became one of the best in the world, particularly for variable temperature X-ray work at temperatures as low as 13 degrees above absolute zero - a mere 263 degrees below freezing point, i.e. very very cold! As a result of this and other work her laboratory in Durham has become a focus for visitors from all over the world. Her research output has been truly prodigious. Crystallographers are noted for having large numbers of publications but Professor Howard excels even in this company - something I forgot on hitting the print button on my computer when she sent me her CV. On reaching the end of a list of nearly 700 publications, my printer was groaning for mercy! In addition to her research she has made huge contributions to myriad University, national and international committees, covering all aspects of academic and scientific affairs and to organisation of many conferences at home and abroad. Her research and other contributions have been recognised through many awards and distinctions - she gained a Doctor of Science degree of the University of Bristol in 1986 to add to her B.Sc. degree, she was awarded a CBE for her contributions to science in 1996, the Royal Society of Chemistry Prize for Structural Chemistry in 1999, culminating in her election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2002. Now, as some of you will be aware the Royal Society has been in the news recently for, to quote one newspaper headline "rejecting the UK's leading female scientist". Well, we have with us today the evidence that they do elect the UK's leading scientists - as always, on merit not gender.
So that is Professor Howard the scientist - what of Judith Howard the person. No one, of course and not least a woman reaches her position of eminence without the highest level of determination and drive. The hair may not be quite as red as it was but the colour still tells a story! However, she is a person who commands the affection, loyalty and admiration of all who know her. Gordon Stone, who as those who know him will attest, is not a man to shower praise lightly, describes her as charming, and working hard beyond belief but as the kindest and most generous of people. Dorothy Hodgkin's biography describes how Judith's lab in Bristol provided Dorothy with a scientific bolt-hole when she had enough of ceremonial and University politics. Her travels from home, still in the south-west, to Durham took her past Ilmington, and she would always call to see Dorothy and bring her the latest gossip - scientific of course. Finally behind every powerful woman there is a strong man, and I know that Judith would want to acknowledge publicly the wonderful, support, not to mention the endless patience and tolerance, of her husband David who, to use her own words, "is extremely long suffering and has supported her in all sorts of ways, through crises, stresses and panics and has put up with absolutely everything all the years from her D.Phil. - and is still married to her". There is perhaps just one aspect that I should touch on, however, to dispel, just ever so slightly this image of a complete paragon of virtue, and in the published version of this oration I shall put these sentiments I have just described in exactly her own words. To receive a Judith Howard email is a wonderfully bewildering experience as she types at huge speed and does not spell check. One can pass many a happy hour deciphering these - it has been said that if she had been alive during the war, they would not have needed the enigma code.
But, to conclude, there is an apt symmetry here with her research. X-ray crystallographers take data which is totally mystifying to other scientists and decipher it to produce the most beautiful and elegant structures.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Judith Ann Kathleen Howard as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.