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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Marie Daly

Marie M. Daly -- Chemist

First African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Chemistry in the U.S. Her research was among the first to establish a link between heart disease and smoking, cholesterol and hypertension

Encouraged and nurtured by parents who believed strongly in the power of education (especially at a time when many African Americans thought going to college was an impossibility), Marie Daly at an early age developed a keen interest in science and the lives of scientists. Her father, Ivan C. Daly, had emigrated from the West Indies as a young man and enrolled at Cornell University to study chemistry. However, a lack of money blocked his path, and he was forced to quit college and to find work as a postal clerk in New York City, where Marie was later born.

Marie'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.After graduating from Hunter College High School, an all-girls institution in New York City, Marie attended Queens College in Flushing, New York, choosing to live at home in order to save money.

Marie 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 Queens College as well as earning a fellowship. This helped her finance her quest for a Masters degree in Chemistry at New York University.

Determined, she finished her Master's degree in just a year and then, in 1944, enrolled at Columbia University as a doctoral student. In this effort, she 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 chemist (known for her research on the starch enzyme, amylase) who'd helped blaze new trails for women in chemistry throughout her career. Caldwell encourage Marie's admission and later served as a mentor to her.

Why She's Important: Marie Daley became the first African woman in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. when she graduated from Columbia in 1947, thereby becoming a role model for countless other black women pursuing science. Her Ph.D. dissertation was titled: A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch, which reflected her ongoing fascination with the human body's complicated biochemistry, specifically how chemicals aid the body in digesting food.

Other Achievements: Marie later joined Columbia as a research chemist in 1955, 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 heart disease and high cholesterol, smoking and hypertension. This research opened up a new understanding of how foods and diet can affect the health of the heart and the circulatory system.

In addition, Marie championed efforts to get minority students 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 other career milestones include: 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.

She died in 2003 in New York City at age 82.

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