Marie Maynard Daly | First African-American woman to gain a PhD in chemistry

Marie Maynard Daly became the first African American woman to gain a doctorate in chemistry in the United States, in 1947. Later, as a biochemist, she helped to discover the link between high cholesterol and clogged arteries, essential for our understanding of heart disease.

Daly was born in Queens, New York, on 16 April 1921, and was raised by her mother who loved reading to her and her father whose own studies in chemistry at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, were cut short by financial difficulties.

She attended the all-female Hunter College High School, where her aspiration to become a chemist grew, before gaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Queens College in Flushing, New York, in 1942. Daly was then offered a fellowship to pursue a master’s degree at New York University, which she completed in a year while working part-time as a laboratory assistant.

In 1944, Daly earned a place on a doctoral programme at Columbia University in New York and spent the next three years studying how the enzyme amylase digests starch, under the supervision of Mary Letitia Caldwell. Her thesis title was “A study of the products formed by the action of pancreatic amylase on corn starch”.

After gaining her doctorate, Daly taught at Howard University in Washington DC for two years. In 1948, she won a prestigious grant from the American Cancer Society for a fellowship at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine, marking the start of a period that she called the highlight of her career in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography.

Daly worked with Alfred Mirsky, a distinguished microbiologist, providing fundamental insights into the composition of the cell nucleus and how proteins are made. The importance of her work was acknowledged in the 1962 Nobel speech given by James Watson and Francis Crick who discovered the structure of DNA alongside Rosalind Franklin.

In 1955, Daly returned to Columbia University to research the causes of heart attacks with Quentin Deming and three years later they moved to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. They were among the first to discover the link between high cholesterol and clogged arteries, a common cause of heart disease. During this time, she also studied the harmful effects of cigarettes on the heart and lung circulatory systems. Daly became a professor in 1960 and eventually retired in 1986.

In 1975, Daly participated in a conference set up to investigate the challenges that women from minority groups face in science, which led to the publication of a report, The Double Bind: The price of being a minority woman in science. She also championed programmes that facilitated the enrolment of people who identify as being from a minority group onto medical and graduate courses. In honour of her father, she created a scholarship for African American science students to enrol at Queens College in New York in 1988. Daly died from cancer in New York on 28 October 2003, aged 82.

Key facts

Full name: Marie Maynard Daly

Born: 16 April 1921, Queens, New York

Died: 28 October 2003, New York

Marie Maynard Daly was a US biochemist and the first African-American woman to gain a PhD in chemistry. She is famous for helping to discover the link between cholesterol and clogged arteries.