The First African American Woman To Earn A Doctoral Degree In Chemistry Made Fundamental Contributions To Protein Synthesis

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Marie Maynard Daly was the first African American woman to obtain a doctoral degree in Chemistry from Columbia University in 1947. A native of New York, Daly decided to study Chemistry because she was influenced by her father, who emigrated to the United States from the British West Indies and did not complete his studies at Cornell University due to lack of financial resources. In all of her academic life, Daly was a star student. She graduated from Queens College as the top 2.5% of her class and later on she went on to study at New York University as well as Columbia University, and was supported by the Fellowships that were given out as part of the war effort. During her doctoral studies in Columbia, her doctoral advisor was Mary Letitia Caldwell, who was the first female to attain be a professor at Columbia University and was the only female in the department for a while.

Daly carried out her most fundamental work when she received a grant from the American Cancer Society which enabled her to study histones, or small protein molecules important in DNA synthesis. She carried this work out in Rockefeller University in conjunction with Alfred Mirsky, who had made significant contributions to understanding of DNA, and V.G. Allfrey. In this collaboration, she explored the chemistry of histones and produced work that was fundamental in the field. Histones help the long strands of DNA to be properly packaged in order to fit into the cell nucleus and thus the have an important structural function. In biology the structure and function of a protein are interlinked and play a vital role, making histones important structurally for DNA formation. Histones have also shown to be important in gene expression. At the time when Daly was studying histones the structure of DNA had not been discovered yet discovered which gives perspective to understand that the work she doing was cutting edge and at the forefront of science at the time.

Later in her career Daly was interested in studying the relationship between cholesterol and high blood pressure. She also served as an investigator for the American Heart Association. In addition to that, she made significant contributions to the understanding of the uptake of creatine by muscle cells. Daly also taught at various universities including Queens College, Howard University, the Rockefeller Institute, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Daly was involved in scientific governance and served on the board of the New York Academy of Science. Throughout her career was recognized by various fellowship from premier institutions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, New York Academy of Sciences, and American Cancer Society, among others. It is interesting to note that in 1975, Daly participated in a conference that was aimed at understanding the challenges minority women face in the scientific fields. She was one of 30 minority women scientists to attend the conference, which was held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This resulted in the publication of the report, The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science (1976).

Daly was passionate about helping others succeed and was remembered as a great teacher, who was involved in mentoring as well as recruitment of minority students. In a memorial lecture dedicated to her in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, it is remembered that “for many years she guided the careers of African-American students at Einstein.” She also taught at various universities including Queens College, Howard University, the Rockefeller Institute, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. In 1988, after her retirement, she established a scholarship for African American chemistry and physics majors at Queens College in memory of her father.

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