1947 was an important year for science – Dr. Marie Maynard Daly became the first African-American woman to hold a PhD in chemistry. Daly was born in New York in 1921 and from a young age her interest in science was encouraged by her father. He was a fellow chemistry-lover and even enrolled to study it at Cornell University, but unfortunately hadn’t been able to finish the course due to lack of finances and discrimination. Marie recounted to Contemporary Black Biography how he had “wanted to become a scientist but there weren’t opportunities for him as a black man at that time”.
Luckily he passed the baton to his daughter and she went from success to success: enrolling at Queens College; graduating with the highest honours; and taking only one year to complete her Master’s whilst also working as a laboratory assistant at the University. Another significant woman in this story is Dr. Mary Caldwell from Columbia University, the University’s first female assistant professor. Marie worked in Mary’s lab for her PhD and undertook research into pancreatic amylase. This research entailed learning how different compounds were made and functioned in digestion.
Her career then took her into further research into aspects of public health, from smoking to high cholesterol. She pinpoints the highlight of her career as her time at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine where she blazed the trail as the sole black scientist working there. Here she worked on elucidating the role of histones, the foundations of the newer field of epigenetics and furthering our understanding of protein synthesis control.
Daly wanted to use her success to help others in her position and in 1988 she opened a scholarship at Queen’s for minority students who aspired to study physical sciences as she and her father had done. Her retirement took her to Sarasota, Florida with her husband and she continued to focus her interest on the intricacies of the natural world, swapping chemistry for gardening. She was also very musical, devoted to playing the flute, when cancer interfered with this ability, she learned to play the guitar instead. She had a huge impact on encouraging women like her to pursue science, and with these talents is similar to Mae Jemison, who also pursued other hobbies with excellence outside of her own field.