/Dr. Marie Maynard Daly: The first Black woman with a Ph.D. in chemistry

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly: The first Black woman with a Ph.D. in chemistry

The women who have contributed to the advancement of the medical sciences throughout history are often overlooked, and Black women all the more so. Medical News Today are bringing some of those little-known names to the fore. In this Special Feature, we talk of Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, the first Black woman with a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Share on Pinterest
Pictured: Columbia University campus, 1969. Dr. Marie Maynard Daly obtained her Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University.
Macha/ullstein bild via Getty Images

At a time when only about 2% of Black women living in the United States held college degrees, Dr. Marie Maynard Daly became the first Black woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Dr. Maynard Daly was among the first researchers to help identify risk factors for cardiovascular disease, particularly those relating to high blood pressure.

She also helped uncover groundbreaking information detailing the organization, structure, and expression of DNA and its elements in cells. In addition, she was an early investigator of the effects of smoking on the heart and lungs.

Dr. Maynard Daly was so influential that the men credited with discovering DNA’s double helix backbone, Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick, even mentioned her work in their Nobel acceptance speech.

She held a range of accomplished positions during her lengthy career, acting as a professor and investigative researcher at a slew of world-renowned institutions.

In this Special Feature, we look at the personal and professional life of Dr. Maynard Daly, as well as her most significant research and continued legacy.

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly was born on April 16, 1921, in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York City, to Helen and Ivan Daly. Corona is a multicultural neighborhood that is home to historic Black communities.

Dr. Maynard Daly dreamed of greatness in chemistry from an early age.

Her mother, an avid reader, fostered in her daughter a love of reading, especially about science and scientists. Dr. Maynard Daly also loved to read science adventure novels from her grandparents’ extensive library.

Her inspiration to pursue science — in particular, chemistry — also came from her father.

Ivan Daly, who migrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean, had to drop out of Cornell University before completing a bachelor’s of science in chemistry due to a lack of funds. To feed his family, he worked for the post office.

Dr. Maynard Daly’s parents encouraged her to pursue higher education and science, enrolling her in the Hunter College High School in Manhattan, an all-female college. In 1942, she graduated among the top of her class with high honors from Queens College, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

After graduation, Queens College offered Dr. Maynard Daly a fellowship, allowing her to enroll in a graduate program in chemistry at New York University (NYU).

To help fund her studies, she also worked part-time at Queens College as a laboratory assistant. Within a year, she graduated in 1943 from NYU with a master’s degree in chemistry.

Dr. Maynard Daly spent much of the following year saving money for further graduate studies while working as a chemistry tutor at Queens College. She is quoted as saying that she pursued doctoral studies because “there wasn’t any opportunity for me if I left school at that time.”

In 1944, Dr. Maynard Daly enrolled in Columbia University’s Ph.D. in chemistry program.

While the precise circumstances remain unknown, some sources claim that Dr. Maynard Daly likely gained funding from Columbia given the lack of male scientists enrolling during World War II.

Once at Columbia, Dr. Caldwell, the institution’s sole senior female scientist in the chemistry department, helped mentor Dr. Maynard Daly.

Dr. Caldwell’s research focused on amylase, a vital digestive enzyme, which likely helped shape Dr. Maynard Daly’s early areas of interest.

Dr. Maynard Daly graduated from Columbia University in 1947 with a Ph.D. in chemistry. With this achievement, she became the first Black female in the U.S. to hold a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Her doctoral work focused on how bodily compounds affect digestion, particularly amylase. The digestive protein amylase breaks bonds between carbohydrates in starches, converting them into simple sugars that the body can easily digest.

Dr. Maynard Daly’s doctoral thesis, A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch, describes the molecules created during the breakdown of cornstarch by amylase.

From Columbia, Dr. Maynard Daly went on to spend 2 years working as a physical science professor at the prestigious, private, historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Following her teaching stint, she won a grant from the American Cancer Society to conduct postdoctoral research at the Rockefeller Institute in New York.

In New York, Dr. Maynard Daly joined forces full-time with a revolutionary in the world of molecular biology, Dr. Alfred E. Mirsky. Their work primarily sought to explore the composition and metabolization of parts of cellular nuclei and the creation of proteins.

Cellular nuclei, often called the cellular brain, control and help regulate most cellular functions. They also carry the cells’ genetic material, allowing them to replicate.

Throughout the early 1950s, Dr. Maynard Daly and Dr. Mirsky also published work describing the composition and characteristics of histones. In the nucleus, DNA wraps around proteins called histones that help condense DNA into the coils that form chromosomes.

During this time, Dr. Maynard Daly detailed the order of amino acids — the building blocks of proteins — in histones. She also helped uncover the structure of pyrimidines and purines, which are the basic units of DNA.

Dr. Maynard Daly reportedly referred to time at the Rockefeller Institute as the highlight of her career due to her exceptional coworkers and how interesting she found the work.

After 7 years of collaboration with Dr. Mirsky, Dr. Maynard Daly returned to her alma mater in 1955 to teach biochemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University.

Working with Dr. Quentin B. Deming, Dr. Maynard Daly made arguably her most important research breakthroughs during this period and the following years.

In 1958, their team published a study uncovering a strong link between high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels in rats. They also published work showing how high cholesterol levels contributed to clogged arteries.

In 1960, Dr. Maynard Daly left Columbia with Dr. Deming to work as a professor of biochemistry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York.

During her final working years, she shifted her focus slightly, looking at how muscle cells use creatine and the effects of age on the circulatory system.

Dr. Maynard Daly also contributed to early research into the impact of smoking cigarettes on lung and heart health and explored how sugars and hormonal factors influence high blood pressure.

Throughout her career, Dr. Maynard Daly also served as a researcher and advisor for several esteemed scientific groups and organizations. From 1958–1963, she was an investigator for the American Heart Association (AHA). In the 1970s, she also joined the New York Academy of Sciences.

In 1999, the National Technical Association named Dr. Maynard Daly as one of the top 50 women in science, engineering, and technology.

She gained tenure in 1971 at the Albert Einstein College and retired in 1986.

Dr. Maynard Daly married Dr. Vincent Clark, a physician at the Harlem Hospital in New York, in 1961, but she maintained her working name for professional reasons.

Reports describe Dr. Maynard Daly as a very cultured woman with numerous interests. She enjoyed music and playing the flute, and later in life, when illness made this too difficult, she learned to play the guitar instead.

Dr. Maynard Daly also reportedly loved her dogs and was an excellent gardener.

Following the death of her husband, Dr. Maynard Daly passed away from cancer in New York in October 2003.

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly is a tangible role model for women who daydream of becoming a science giant, especially those from historically marginalized groups.

She helped develop programs to increase student enrollment in graduate science programs and medical schools among people from historically marginalized groups.

One of these programs, the Martin Luther King-Robert F. Kennedy Program, helped prepare Black students for university.

She also recruited Puerto Rican and Black students to the Albert Einstein College and mentored several prominent scientists, including Dr. Francine B. Essine, the first Black woman to obtain a Ph.D. in biology.

Furthermore, in 1988, Dr. Maynard Daly created a scholarship fund for Black students at Queens College in honor of her father’s unfulfilled chemistry degree.

She was also one of 30 female scientists from historically marginalized groups to attend a conference in 1975 discussing the challenges that women from these groups face in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.

Dr. Maynard Daly’s work changed how researchers and doctors think about the impact of the diet on heart and circulatory system health.

It also paved the way for future researchers to unravel the mystery of why heart disease and stroke occur and how to prevent them. In particular, her work helped reveal the causes of atherosclerosis and conditions related to high blood pressure.

Atherosclerosis occurs when fats, cholesterol, and other molecules accumulate on the inner walls of blood vessels. This buildup slowly narrows blood vessels, raising blood pressure and reducing blood flow.

Dr. Maynard Daly’s work on histones and other compounds that make up DNA shaped the foundation of cellular biology. It also helped other science giants, such as Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick, make major discoveries regarding the organization and expression of DNA.

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly may not be a “household name” yet, but her legacy lives on through her contribution to science, as well as the programs and funds she created to encourage students from historically marginalized communities.

With public awareness campaigns such as Black History Month, more and more people continue to get inspiration from her accomplishments and perseverance. The Dr. Marie M. Daly Academy of Excellence, an elementary school in St. Albans, NY, was founded in 2016.