Science history: Marie Maynard Daly, lifesaver

Chemist helped highlight the dangers of cholesterol and tobacco.

Marie Maynard Daly, from the Queens College Silhouette Yearbook, 1942.

By Jeff Glorfeld

Much of what is known today about the health risks associated with tobacco smoke and high levels of cholesterol in the blood began with the work of Marie Maynard Daly.

The pioneering chemist conducted important studies on cholesterol, sugars and proteins, and was equally committed to developing programs to increase the enrolment of minority students in medical schools and graduate science programs.

Daly was born in Queens, New York, on 16 April 1921. After high school she enrolled at Queens College in New York, graduating in chemistry with high honours in 1942.

She received a fellowship to study for a master’s degree at New York University, which she completed in just one year, followed by another fellowship to pursue her doctoral degree at Columbia University.

There she worked under the direction of Dr Mary L Caldell, who began teaching at Columbia in 1922, was promoted to full professor in 1948, and was the first woman hired as a senior faculty member in chemistry at Columbia.

Caldwell’s research group focused on the chemistry of the enzyme amylase, which converts starch into sugars.

Daly earned her PhD from Columbia in 1947 with the thesis “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch”.

She was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the US, but as Dr Sibrina Collins, writing for the Undark website, points out, she “should be remembered for so much more”.

After completing her PhD, Daly received a grant from the American Cancer Society, which allowed her to join Alfred Mirsky, a pioneer in molecular biology, at the Rockefeller Institute in New York.

Their focus was the composition and metabolism of components of cellular nuclei, and as the Researcher’s Gateway website says, Daly’s “work on purine and pyrimidine, in particular, provided critical building blocks to Watson and Crick’s later research on DNA”.

She also examined the effects of ageing and hypertension on the arterial wall and the effects of sugar consumption and cholesterol. In addition, she researched the effects of smoking on the lungs.

Collins says this “was a fruitful research collaboration, leading to six peer-reviewed articles published in the Journal of General Physiology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry between 1949 and 1953”.

In 1955 Daly returned to Columbia and began working with Dr Quentin Deming to investigate the causes of heart attacks.

An article published by the Royal Society of Chemistry says, “their work eventually transferred to Albert Einstein College, where they pioneered the discovery of the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries”.

Collins says Daly and Deming published three peer-reviewed papers during their research collaboration – in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, the Journal of Clinical Investigation, and the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine.

Daly taught biochemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University and in 1960 became a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she remained until her retirement in 1986.

In 1988 she established a scholarship fund for African American science students at Queens College in honour of her father.

She died in New York City on 28 October 2003.

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Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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