Marie Maynard Daly, PhD was the first African American to get her PhD in chemistry. Her contributions in biochemistry included, including research on nuclear proteins, cancer, and hypertension. In addition to her research, she taught university classes on physical sciences and worked to encourage minority students, including creating a scholarship fund for African-American students studying physical sciences at Queens College.
Marie Daly was born in New York City on the 16th of April, 1921 to Ivan C. Daly and Helen Page. Ivan Daly, an immigrant from the British West Indies, had come to the United States to study chemistry at Cornell University but had been unable to finish his degree for financial reasons. He became a postal worker instead and married Helen Page. Marie Daly was the first of their three children, the younger two being twin boys.
Marie Daly’s parents and maternal grandparents encouraged her love of reading from a young age.
She was especially interested in books on science. One of the books in particular, The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruiff, published in 1926, inspired Marie Daly’s interest in science . It also influenced her later work in biochemistry. In it, Dr. Kruiff discusses a number of major historical breakthroughs in medicine stemming from a better understanding of the microbes that caused the disease. Despite the fact that it was unusual at the time for women to go into science, her parents encouraged her to pursue her interest in science.
From a young age, Marie excelled at school, and was able to attend Hunter College High School. Hunter College High School was a school for girls, which was affiliated with Hunter College, which at the time was a college for women. Hunter College High School was a laboratory for Hunter College and so provided its students with an exceptional high school education. Because Daly was both interested and adept at science, her teachers encouraged her to take college level chemistry classes.
After high school, Daly pursued a Bachelors in Chemistry at Queens College.
At the time, because of her good grades,Queens College granted her free tuition. By living at home, she saved money as well. She graduated in 1942 with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry and was named a Queens College Scholar. After her graduation, she worked as a part-time laboratory assistant at Queens College while pursuing her Masters degree at New York University. She obtained her Masters in Chemistry in 1943. She knew she wanted a PhD and so continued working at Queens to build savings for her doctorate.
World War II opened up many opportunities for women in what had been male-dominated fields, including the sciences. In 1944, Daly enrolled in a doctoral program at Columbia University, where she received a university fellowship. There she worked with Dr. Mary L. Caldwell who was nationally recognized for her research in nutritional chemistry.
Working in Caldwell’s lab, Daly researched how the pancreatic enzyme amylase breaks down corn starch for her doctoral thesis. While writing her dissertation, she taught physical science at Howard University. She completed her thesis and graduated with her doctorate in 1948, the first African-American woman to obtain her doctorate in chemistry.
After graduating, she wanted to work with A. E. Mirsky at the Rockefeller Foundation.
Mirsky told her that she would need to find her own funding. So she continued to work at Howard University while applying for funding for her research from the American Cancer Society. After she received her funding, she left Howard University to work at the Rockefeller Institute, where she researched the composition and metabolism of cellular nuclei. Her work on purine and pyrimidine, in particular, provided critical building blocks to Watson and Crick’s later research on DNA.
In 1955, Daly left the Rockefeller Institute for the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. There, she taught biochemistry while also working as a research associate with Dr. Quentin B. Deming at Goldwater Memorial Hospital. While Daly continued to conduct cancer research and work with nucleic acids, with Deming she began researching heart attacks.
Funded by American Heart Association, she researched heart disease and the causes of heart attacks. Her work, examined the effects of aging and hypertension on the arterial wall and the effects of sugar consumption and cholesterol. She also researched the effects of smoking on the lungs.
In 1960, Daly and her research partner Deming moved to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. There, Daly taught biochemistry first as an assistant professor and later as an associate professor, while continuing their research on heart disease.
In 1961, married Vincent Clark. While her full married name was Marie Maynard Daly Clark, she retained her maiden name professionally due to her publications.
Daly encouraged African-American students in a number of ways.
At Albert Einstein College, she developed and helped run the Martin Luther King-Robert F. Kennedy Program, which prepared African-American students for admission. She also worked to recruit both African-American and Puerto Rican medical students to Einstein. Retiring from Albert Einstein College in 1986, she did so with numerous accolades. These included being a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After she retired, in 1988, she donated money to Queens College to create a scholarship for African-American chemistry and physics students. She did this to honor her father. Dr. Daly passed away in New York on 28th October, 2003 at the age of 82.
In 2016, the new elementary school in St. Albans New York was named the Dr. Marie M. Daly Academy of Excellence in her honor.