She was a pioneer of X-ray crystallography. She discovered the chemical structure of penicillin in the 1940s, which enabled it to be manufactured synthetically; and also those of vitamin B12 and insulin. This latter achievement took her 34 years, having started in 1933.
She studied chemistry at Oxford and Cambridge universities, before becoming a research fellow at Somerville College, Oxford in 1936, a post which she held until 1977. In 1960 she was appointed Wolfson Research Professor at the Royal Society. In 1964 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work in crystallography.