Dr Marie Maynard Daly

Overcoming the hurdles of gender and racial bias, Marie Maynard Daly was the first African American woman to be awarded a PhD in Chemistry in the United States, in 1947

Photograph of Dr Marie Daly, (c) Queens College

Marie M. Daly was born in 1921 in Corona, NY. Her parents inspired her passion for science; her mother fostered her love of books and her father passed on his love of chemistry. Before Marie was born, her father had enrolled at Cornell University to study Chemistry, but ultimately had to leave due to a lack of money.

Marie’s parents were strong believers in education at a time when attending college was seen as impossibility to many African Americans. Hence, after graduating high school, Marie stayed living at home to save money and enrolled in Queens College, New York, where she majored in Chemistry.

Graduate studies

Marie graduated magna cum laude in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was offered a fellowship to pursue her graduate studies at New York University, whilst working part-time as a laboratory assistant at Queens College. Marie completed her master’s degree in just one year. 

In 1944, Marie enrolled at Columbia University as a doctoral student, where she undertook research into compounds the body produces and how these affect digestion. Working under the direction of Dr. Mary L Caldwell (the first female assistant professor at Columbia University), Marie completed her PhD with a thesis entitled ‘A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch’. She became the first African American woman in the United States to be awarded a PhD in chemistry in 1947.

Research career

After her completing her PhD, Marie went onto work with Alfred E. Mirsky, a pioneer in molecular biology, at the Rockefeller Institute in New York after receiving a grant from the American Cancer Society. Marie then returned to Columbia in 1955, working closely with Dr. Quentin B. Demming to investigate the causes of heart attacks. Their work eventually transferred to Albert Einstein College, where they pioneered the discovery of the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries.

Marie continued to teach and carry out pioneering research at Albert Einstein College, including the study into the effects of cigarette smoking on the lungs, until she retired in 1986. Marie also supported efforts to enrol minority students in medical schools and graduate science programs and in 1988 started a scholarship for minority students who want to study science at Queen’s College.

Words by Melissa Black

Images courtesy of Queens College, City University of New York