When many people think of the chemist in the white lab coat, they are bound to picture a White male.
But, there are Black women who have greatly contributed to the science of chemistry.
The world of chemistry affects all of our lives on a daily basis.
In the medicines we take; hair care products, such as shampoos, conditioners, and hair colors; fertilizers for our plants; cleaners for dishes, clothes, floors, and our vehicles; the dyes used in the clothes we wear; even in the preparation and preservation of the foods we eat as we bake a pie or a cake or cook meat and vegetables for dinner.
Many people have given their gifts of insight and knowledge to the field of chemistry. One such lady is Ms. Marie Maynard Daly. Ms. Daly is best known for being the first Black American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States and the first Black American woman to receive a doctoral degree, which she earned from Columbia University in 1947, for her thesis A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch (1947).
She also conducted pioneering research on the effects of hypertension (high blood pressure) and blockage in arteries leading to a better understanding of how heart attacks are caused.
Here is her story.
Marie Maynard Daley, chemist (b. April 16, 1921 – d. October 28, 2003). Marie M. Daly was born on April 16, 1921, in Corona, Queens, New York. She was raised in an education-oriented family, and Ms. Daly quickly received her B.S. and M.S. in biochemistry at Queens College and New York University. After completing her Ph.D. at Columbia—and becoming the first Black American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States—Ms. Daly taught and conducted research.
The pioneering scientist and future chemist was the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States, and her groundbreaking work helped clarify how the human body works.
Ms. Daly came from a family who believed strongly in the power of education. Her father, Ivan C. Daly, had emigrated from the West Indies as a young man and enrolled at Cornell University to study chemistry. A lack of money blocked his path, however, and he was forced to quit college, instead returning to New York City where he found work as a postal clerk.
Ms. Daly’s mother, Helen, grew up in Washington, D.C., and came from a family of readers. She spent long hours reading to her daughter, and fostered Marie’s love of books—in particular those that centered on science and scientists.
After graduating from Hunter College High School, an all-girls institution in New York City, Ms. Daly attended Queens College in Flushing, New York, choosing to live at home in order to save money.
Ms. Daly graduated with honors in 1942 and, to get around the fact that she didn’t have much money for graduate school, landed work as a lab assistant at her old college as well as a hard-earned fellowship. Both were instrumental in helping her to cover the costs of getting a graduate degree in chemistry from New York University.
Ms. Daly didn’t waste time in completing her studies. She finished her master’s degree in just a year and then, in 1944, enrolled at Columbia University as a doctoral student. Aided by her own ambition and intelligence, Ms. Daly was further helped by timing. World War II was at its peak, and employers were looking for women to fill the jobs left by the scores of men who’d been sent overseas to fight. In addition, Columbia’s chemistry program was being led by Dr. Mary L. Caldwell, a renowned scientist who helped blaze new trails for women in chemistry throughout her career.
At Columbia, Ms. Daly took to the lab, studying how the body’s chemicals help digest food. She finished her doctorate—unknowingly making history as the first female African American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States—in 1947. Fascinated by the human body’s complicated inner workings, Ms. Daly landed a grant in 1948 from the American Cancer Society. This was the start of a seven-year research program at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine, where Ms. Daly examined how proteins are constructed in the body.
Researcher and Activist
In 1955, Ms. Daly returned to Columbia, working closely with Dr. Quentin B. Deming on the causes of heart attacks. Their groundbreaking work, which was later relocated to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York, disclosed the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries. That work opened up a new understanding of how foods and diet can affect the health of the heart and the circulatory system.
In addition to her research work at Einstein, Ms. Daly also taught biochemistry courses. Recognizing the importance of her own career path, Ms. Daly championed efforts to get students of color enrolled in medical schools and graduate science programs. In 1988 she started a scholarship, in honor of her father, for minority students who want to study science at Queens College. Her career milestones include the following: serving as an instructor in Physical Science at Howard University between 1947-48; an Associate at the Columbia University Research Service of the Goldwater Memorial Hospital, from 1955-59; Assistant Professor (1960-1971) and Associate Professor (1971-1986) of Biochemistry and Medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, an Investigator for the American Heart Association (1958-63), and elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Ms. Daly retired from Albert Einstein College in 1986. Her many honors included induction into Phi Beta Kappa as well as being tapped as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Ms. Daly, who married Vincent Clark in 1961 and whose full married name was Marie Maynard Daly Clark, died in New York City on October 28, 2003.