Meet the first black woman to earn a PhD in chemistry

Marie Maynard Daly worked at a time when our understanding of DNA was changing in big ways

Marie Maynard Daly was born in 1921 in Corona Park, Queens and started to nourish her burgeoning interest in chemistry and science at a young age. She grew up at a time when gender and race discrimination was common. In addition to facing an uphill battle as a young black woman in academia, she dealt with gender disparity in the quantitative sciences. These issues of under-representation for women and minorities still exist in physics, computer science, mathematics, engineering and other fields. 

In 1953, Daly's chosen fields of chemistry and biology were indelibly altered by the publication of James Watson and Francis Crick's paper A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. The Nobel Prize for this discovery excluded Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist who contributed x-ray crystallography data to Watson and Crick’s paper, explaining the structure of DNA. This discovery opened up huge new areas of study and funding for Daly, but also underlined the difficulty of recognition in the sciences. 

Daly conducted research on a wide range of chemical and biological processes in the body. She did graduate work on chemicals produced during digestive reactions in the pancreas. Her postdoctoral research, which she conducted before Watson and Crick’s publication in 1953, focused on observing the nucleus of cells and their relationship to protein synthesis. Later, Daly conducted research on disease states like hypertension and their effects on arteries and other parts of the circulatory system. 

Illustration by Matteo Farinella

The historical and social context of Daly’s work in chemistry shaped her life and achievements. Despite the resistance she faced, she rose meteorically with honors from her undergraduate studies at Queens College to her graduate studies at NYU and Columbia. At Columbia, Daly studied under another trailblazer, Mary Caldwell, who was the first woman to become an assistant professor at Columbia. In 1947, Daly became the first black woman to receive a PhD in chemistry. She went on to do postdoctoral work at Howard University and the Rockefeller Institute, and became a professor at The College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University.

Daly retired in 1986 and started a scholarship for black chemistry and physics majors at Queens College in honor of her father, who went to Cornell to be a chemist but was unable to finish his degree because he couldn’t afford tuition.