Dr. Marie Maynard Daly was a biochemist who studied fundamental science that contributed to our understanding of how to keep the human body healthy. Her research led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA and more, but like many Black female pioneers in science, she isn’t a household name. Here, we celebrate her contributions to chemistry and healthcare, which she accomplished in the context of racial and gender bias.
Daly was born in 1921 in Queens, New York, according to Biography.com. Both sides of her family sought education at a time when Black people, women — and especially Black women — were often denied admission to traditional universities. Her mother came from a family of readers, and she often read aloud to Marie and helped her with homework.
According to Encyclopedia.com, Marie enjoyed reading Paul DeKruip’s “Microbe Hunters,” a popular book about Louis Pasteur and other early microbiologists. She was also inspired to become a scientist because of her father. He immigrated from the British West Indies and studied chemistry at Cornell University. But he couldn’t afford to stay long enough to complete his degree, so he left school and became a postal clerk.
Marie Maynard Daly earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Queens College and graduated with honors in 1942. Next, she earned a fellowship to continue her chemistry studies at New York University. To fill the gaps to afford school, she also worked as a lab assistant at her undergraduate school while she pursued her master’s, which she completed in only one year.
She then went to Columbia University for her doctorate program. She studied under Dr. Mary L. Caldwell, an immigrant from Bogota, Colombia, and one of the great female pioneers in science who paved the way for Daly and other women. Opportunities for women in science were very limited, but with so many men serving overseas during World War II, there were more job openings for women.
Daly worked in Columbia’s chemistry lab with Caldwell studying the enzymes that help digest food. In 1947, Daly made history when she received her Ph.D. in chemistry. She was the first African American woman to do so, although she wasn’t aware of this groundbreaking milestone at the time, according to Biography.com.
After completing her formal education, she spent two years teaching at Howard University, a historically Black university in her mother’s hometown of Washington, D.C. While there, she began research on the composition and metabolism of components in the cell nucleus, according to the Science History Institute. She received a grant from the American Cancer Society to support this research, which she later continued with molecular biologist Alfred E. Mirsky at the Rockefeller Institute in New York. She continued teaching and researching at various institutions, including the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University and at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York. Her research helped reveal the relationship between high cholesterol and hypertension, which bettered our understanding of nutrition and cardiology.
She studied many aspects of biochemistry and metabolism throughout her career. She conducted fundamental research that other scientists used to make famous discoveries. For example, when Francis Crick and James Watson won the Nobel Prize for the double helix structure of DNA, they cited Daly’s work, according to Spartanburg Science Center.
In 1975, she participated in a meeting of 30 minority women in science sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This led to a report now archived by MIT called The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.
In 1986, Daly retired from Albert Einstein College and served on the Commission for Science and Technology of New York City, according to Encyclopedia.com. In 1988, she honored her parents by establishing a scholarship for minority students studying physics or chemistry at her alma mater, Queens College. She moved to her vacation home in East Hampton and enjoyed a quiet retired life with her husband, Vincent Clark, eventually moving to Florida for the mild climate.
She was inducted into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society and designated as a fellow of the AAAS. Marie Maynard Daly Clark died in New York City on Oct. 28, 2003.