Marie Maynard Daly
In 1947 Daly became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the United States.
Overcoming the dual hurdles of racial and gender bias, Marie Maynard Daly (1921–2003) conducted important studies on cholesterol, sugars, and proteins. In addition to her research, she was committed to developing programs to increase the enrollment of minority students in medical school and graduate science programs.
Daly’s early research included studies of the effects of cholesterol on the mechanics of the heart, the effects of sugars and other nutrients on the health of arteries, and the breakdown of the circulatory system as a result of advanced age or hypertension. Later she studied how proteins are produced and organized in the cell.
A Budding Interest in Science
Born in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York, Daly was an avid reader and was fascinated by Paul De Kruif’s popular book The Microbe Hunters. She was further inspired by her father’s love of science. Unfortunately, he had been forced by economic circumstances to drop out of Cornell University, where he had been pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
Daly was educated at Hunter College High School, an all-female institution, where her ambition to become a chemist was supported and encouraged. She enrolled in Queens College in Flushing, New York, as a commuting student, and graduated magna cum laude in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
The college offered her a fellowship to pursue graduate studies in chemistry at New York University while working part-time as a laboratory assistant at Queens College. In just one year she completed her master’s degree.
A PhD from Columbia
Daly enrolled in the doctoral program at Columbia University after working for a year tutoring chemistry students at Queens College. She also obtained funding from the university to help in her full-time study of chemistry.
Under the direction of Mary L. Caldwell, who was known for her work on the important digestive enzyme amylase, Daly researched how compounds produced in the body affect and participate in digestion.
The title of her dissertation was “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch.” She was awarded her doctoral degree in 1947, only three years after enrolling in the program, and was the first African American woman to obtain a PhD in chemistry in the United States.
Career in Research and Education
After completing her doctoral degree Daly taught for two years at Howard University in Washington, DC. On receiving a grant from the American Cancer Society to support her postdoctoral research, she joined Alfred E. Mirsky, a pioneer in molecular biology, at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where for seven years she worked on the composition and metabolism of components of the cell nucleus, among other studies. Then Daly took a new position teaching biochemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. In 1960 she became a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she remained until her retirement in 1986.
In addition to her research Daly was committed to developing programs to increase the enrollment of minority students in medical school and graduate science programs. In 1988 she established a scholarship fund for African American science students at Queens College in honor of her father.
Featured image: Marie Maynard Daly working in her lab, ca. 1960. Archives of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Ted Burrows, photographer.