Dr Marie Maynard Daly – Biochemist

“Courage is like — it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue: you get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”

-Dr Marie Daly on the bravery required to push the frontiers of science and equality


Name: Marie Maynard Daly

Life: April 16th 1921 – October 28th 2003 (died aged 82)

Degrees: B.S. Queen’s College, Flushing, New York

M.S. New York University

P.h.D Columbia University

Occupation: Biochemist, first Black American woman in the United States to earn a P.h.D in chemistry


Who was Marie Maynard Daly?

Marie Maynard Daly was born on April 16th in Queens, New York, to Ivan .C. Daly and Helen Daly. Ivan was an immigrant from the West Indies, and like most immigrant fathers, strongly believed in the power education had to improve the life of his children. He had initially enrolled at Cornell University to study chemistry but due to lack of funds had to leave before completing a degree. Her mother, Helen, also shared in her father’s view of education being vitally important and encouraged her daughter’s love for books by reading to her for hours, focussing especially on books about science. [2]

She received a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Queen’s College in 1942 . Not only did she graduate summa cum laude (with highest honours) but she was also named a Queen’s College Scholar – an award only given to those who graduated in the top 2.5% of the class. She then received a fellowship to study for a Master’s degree at New York University, and she received her MS in chemistry in 1943. [1][2]

Daly wanted to continue her studies to receive a PhD, but due to not being able to afford her tuition she continued to work at Queen’s College for a year to save up for it. The onset of World War II meant that the need for labour (particularly in the scientific fields) was desperately needed, and she received a university fellowship from Columbia University to study for a PhD with her research supervisor being Dr. Mary Caldwell – a woman who had conducted research on amylase, the enzyme responsible for digesting starch. She completed her research in 1947, and her thesis was entitled “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch” and in 1948 was awarded her PhD making her the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry. [1][2][3][4]

What did Dr Marie Daly’s research focus on?

After her PhD she got funding from the American Cancer Society and took up a position at Howard University as an instructor of physical science. The person responsible for hiring her was noted black physicist Herman R. Branson, and Marie had often credited him with giving her her first job.



Authors note:

An interesting thing to note about Dr. Branson is that he was the co-discoverer of the alpha helix in DNA and was unfairly passed over when receiving the Nobel Prize for it, with it going to Linus Pauling instead. It should be noted that Linus Pauling was a proponent of eugenics – and believed that those who were the carriers of sickle-cell anaemia should not reproduce and should have a forehead tattoo to indicate that they were carriers. Sickle-cell anaemia is a disease that primarily affects those of Afro-Caribbean racial backgrounds – it is quite plausible to conclude that there were racist motivations on Pauling’s behalf to make sure his Black colleague did not receive the prize. I may write an article on the terribleness of Pauling’s beliefs in a separate article, but I thought it worth mentioning here as something I found out during the research process of this piece on Dr. Daly. [6][7]


She left Howard University in 1948, and joined the Rockefeller Institute after she received a grant for the American Cancer Society. She became the only black scientist working at the institute and her research here was on the study and composition and metabolism of components of cell nuclei – her initial studies on the purine and pyrimidine content of DNA preceded the work by Watson and Crick by six or seven years – showing yet again an example of white scientists taking credit for the work done by a woman of colour! Her work was cited by Watson in his Nobel Prize address – but one cannot ignore the fact that she did not get a share of the actual Prize herself. [2][8]

She worked at the Rockerfeller Institute until 1955, and then moved to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University where she taught biochemistry alongside being a research associate at Goldwater Memorial Hospital, studying the factors behind hypertension, arteriosclerosis and how they relate to heart attacks. She also played a pivotal role in the discovery that high cholesterol levels were linked to cardiovascular disease, and that smoking and high blood sugar levels were also linked to arteriosclerosis.

In 1960, Dr Daly moved to Yeshiva University where she became an assistant professor of biochemistry and did seminal work on the biochemistry of aging relating to the heart and also hypertension. In 1971 she was promoted to associate professor, and until retirement her work focussed on the uptake of creatine by muscle cells, something which is important when researching how muscles recycle energy. She retired in 1986. [2]


Dr. Marie Maynard Daly at work in her lab [5]


How did Dr Daly help further generations of black scientists?

While at Yeshiva University she mentored many students – one of those students was Dr. Francine Eissen, the first black woman in the US to receive a PhD in biology, who then became a professor at Douglass College in New Jersey. [9][11][12]

Dr. Daly also guided the mentoring and recruitment of many other black and minority ethnic students at the university and a became a member of the committee that ran a program founded in 1968 which helped and prepared African American students for admission to the university.

She was credited by the chair of the biochemistry department for developing the program and actively organising the recruitment of black students and was responsible for the sections of the program where the students were being taught – she was the official administrator of the program and therefore responsible for the hundreds of black students that were admitted. [1][2][11]

She also understood the importance of ensuring that POC who were students training to go into the medical profession were supported, making sure there were efforts amongst the medical schools of New York to recruit black and Puerto Rican medical students. [2]

Daly attended a conference which discussed the challenges of being a woman of colour in STEM fields, held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As a result of this conference the AAAS published a report entitled The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science (1976) which made recommendations for recruiting and retaining minority women scientists. [1][10]

She also dedicated an amount of her money in memory of her father to Queens College in 1988, money which was to be used as scholarship aid for black students in the physical sciences – she felt that scholarship money coming from a black scientist would motivate black students more, highlighting her knowledge of the importance of representation and visibility of black scientists for the encouragement of black students. [5]

She was also a member of several pro-black societies outside of her academic institution, including the NOBCChE, the National Organisation for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. She was also a moderator on the panel “Black Women in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering: Confronting the Professional Challenges.” She was also a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women.

For her work as a scientific researcher and a professor of chemistry she was selected by the National Technical Association as one the top fifty women in Science, Engineering and Technology. [1][2][5][12]


Dr Marie Maynard Daly was a scientist who excelled in her career carrying out work which was of vital importance then and even more vital now – figuring out the mechanism behind heart disease. Her research consequently saved and continues to save millions of lives every year and she was responsible for establishing fundamental pillars of knowledge in cardiology: she was the first person to establish that high blood pressure was a precursor to the build up of plaque in arteries and the first person to establish that cholesterol levels in blood are linked to clogged arteries – something which is common medical knowledge today. [1]

She was inspiring not just for her pioneering research, but also for her constant encouragement and tutelage of black and minority ethnic students. She herself was mentored by Dr Branson, a black physicist – and in turn she understood the importance of doing everything in your power to lift up those who are at a disadvantage in academia because of their race. Her commitment to several organisations which promoted racial equality and diversity for Black people and especially Black women showed her as someone who knew the virtue of ensuring resources go to those in society who are the most marginalised. We should all, as scientists, know the importance of fighting to achieve the same, both inside and outside of academia: not just as a singular role on an “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” committee, but we should carry this sentiment in our brains and our hearts wherever we go in this life, just as Dr. Daly did in hers.


[1] Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Maynard_Daly

[2] Brown, Jeannette E. (Jeannette Elizabeth) (2012). African American women chemists, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199742882OCLC 761692608

[3] New York Academy of Sciences article – https://www.nyas.org/history-highlights/contents/editorial/iamnyas-historical-edition-marie-maynard-daly/

[4] Science History article – https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/marie-maynard-daly

[5] My Voice Canada article – https://myvoicecanada.com/marie-m-daly-groundbreaking-chemist/

[6] Article on Dr Herman Branson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Branson

[7] Oregon State University page on Sickle Cell Anaemia – http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/pauling/blood/narrative/page36.html

[8] DALY MM, ALLFREY VG, MIRSKY AE. Purine and pyrimidine contents of some desoxypentose nucleic acids. J Gen Physiol. 1950;33(5):497–510. doi:10.1085/jgp.33.5.497

[9] Spangenburg, Ray; Moser, Kit (2003). African Americans in science, math, and invention. New York: Facts on File, Inc. pp. 55–56. ISBN 9781438107745.

[10] Malcom, Shirley Mahaley; Quick Hall, Paula; Brown, Janet Welsh (1976). The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science. Report of a Conference of Minority Women Scientists, Arlie House, Warrenton, Virginia (PDF). Warrenton, Virginia: Arlie House. p. 63

[11] African-American Registry article on Dr Marie Daly – https://aaregistry.org/story/marie-m-daly-biochemist-born/

[12] Irwin, Demetria (March 7, 2016). “[UNSUNG SHEROES] Dr. Marie Maynard Daly, a Trailblazer in Medical Research”. EBONY.


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