Marie Maynard Daly overcame racial & gender barriers to become the first African American woman to earn a PhD in Chemistry before embarking on a career in medical science that changed the way we understand the human body.
Marie was born in 1921 in Queens, New York. She was the oldest child and only girl in her family. She got her love of science from her dad. When he was a young man he wanted to be a scientist and had earned a scholarship to study science at Cornell University. Despite the scholarship he couldn’t afford his room & board and so sadly he was forced to drop out. Marie later said, “My father wanted to become a scientist but there weren’t opportunities for him as a black man at that time.” Instead he became a postal worker and worked hard to provide for his family.
His passion for science never left him and he passed this on to his daughter. Both her father and mother encouraged Marie’s interest in chemistry. She loved to read and devoured science books. Her favourite was a book called The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif, which was a story about some of the real life scientists Marie wanted to be like.
Marie went to an all girls school called Hunter College High School where, needless to say, her favourite subject was science! Her teachers encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming a scientist when she graduated. From there she went to study for her degree at Queens College, she loved learning and decided to stay on and complete her masters. She took on a job as a lab assistant so that she could pay for her studies and managed to complete her masters within a year!
Ever hungry for knowledge she enrolled at Columbia University to study chemistry. Whilst there she was tutored by Dr Mary L Caldwell, another scientific shero who really encouraged other female chemists. Marie completed her PhD in Chemistry in 1947, becoming the first African American woman do ever do so!
The area of chemistry that most fascinated Marie was looking at the chemicals in our body. She studied how chemicals in our digestive system help break down food and what happens in our cells. After she completed her PhD she became a research assistant at the Rockerfeller Institute of Medicine (now Rockerfeller University) where she worked with top scientists investigating how our bodies work. She was the first and only black scientist working there at the time.
By now she was becoming an expert in her field and in 1955 she took a job at Columbia University, where she would stay for the next seven years. She began researching what causes heart attacks and how our health is linked to what we eat. She made some really important discoveries which have helped doctors understand and treat heart attacks today. From 1958-63 she also gave her time to the American Heart Association, contributing to their research. By 1960 she had been made Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Columbia University. Ten years later she had moved on to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University where she was made Associate Professor.
Throughout her career Marie made great discoveries about how our bodies work and how food and lifestyle can affect us. As well as her research into the heart and digestive system she also showed clear links between smoking and lung disease. Her findings helped us understand our health better and informed modern medicine.
In 1988, after Marie had retired, she founded a science scholarship for African American students at Queens College in her father’s name. She wanted to pass on the passion her father had given her and open up the opportunity he had never had to others.
Find out more….
Do you want to be a scientist like Marie? Marie studied Biochemistry (the chemistry of living things, like us!) You can find out more about biochemistry and learn about some of Marie’s research on the Chem4Kids website.
The book African American Women Chemists by Jeanette Brown, tells the stories of pioneering black female scientists like Marie.