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Linking Heart Attacks and Cholesterol

Meet the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the US.

The first African-American woman to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the US, Marie Maynard Daly, PhD, had a distinguished career in biochemistry and was an Academy Member, as well as a Member of the Academy’s Board of Governors in the 1970s.

Daly was born in 1921, in the Corona neighborhood of Queens in New York City, to a father who immigrated to the US from the West Indies and a mother born in Washington, DC. She went on to earn her doctorate from Columbia University and helped make important contributions to our understanding of the links between cholesterol and heart attacks.

Who was her biggest science inspiration?

While we can’t say for sure, many of the available biographies of Daly speak about the influence of her father, Ivan C. Daly, on her early decision to study chemistry.

Ivan attended Cornell University as a young man and hoped to complete a degree in chemistry there but had to leave school before finishing because of a lack of funds. As a young woman, both her father and mother, along with her maternal grandfather, encouraged Daly to pursue a career in the sciences.

It was on a visit to her grandparents’ house in Washington, DC, where she discovered Paul de Kruif’s 1926 book The Microbe Hunters, which is also said to have been an important inspiration to her. However, the clue that seems to reveal just how important her father was to her comes later in her life, when she established a scholarship fund in his name for African-American students studying science at her undergraduate alma mater, Queens College.

Did she have a science mentor?

During her doctoral studies at Columbia University, Daly’s doctoral advisor was Mary Letitia Caldwell, PhD. Caldwell was the first and only female senior faculty member at Columbia for a number of years and spent the bulk of her career working to isolate the enzyme amylase.

Caldwell is credited in a couple of the available biographies with encouraging Daly to focus on studying aspects of digestion, and the title of Daly’s dissertation reflects Caldwell’s intellectual influence: “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch.” We can only speculate about the other early influences that Caldwell might have provided Daly, both of whom are remembered for being important “first” women in their fields.

What was one of her biggest career accomplishments?

In the mid-1950s, Marie began working with Quentin B. Deming, MD, first at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, and later at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. The work they did together helped to lay important groundwork for our understanding of the relationship between heart attacks and cholesterol, along with other blockages in the arteries.

Click here and go to page 1340 to read the abstract for their paper, “Effect of Hypertension on Cholesterol Synthesis in Rats,” which they presented, along with three others, at the 1962 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Clinical Investigation.

Learn more about Daly

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Academy Staff
This article was written by a member of the Academy staff.