10th Marie Daly Lecture Celebrates Diversity in Science

February 15, 2024—(BRONX NY)—Einstein’s Minority Scientist Association will host the 10th annual Marie Maynard Daly, Ph.D., Memorial Lecture at noon on Tuesday, Feb. 27, in the Price Center’s LeFrak Auditorium. The event was planned in collaboration with Einstein’s Graduate Programs in the Biomedical Sciences and the office of diversity enhancement and commemorates the legacy of Dr. Daly, an Einstein associate professor and the first Black woman in the United States to attain a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Guest speaker will be Andre Isaacs, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

Einstein's Marie Maynard Daly, Ph.D., was the first Black woman in the United States to attain a Ph.D. in chemistry
Einstein’s Marie Maynard Daly, Ph.D., was the first Black woman in the United States to attain a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Groundbreaking Researcher

Today’s accepted knowledge about the health dangers posed by high cholesterol levels and hypertension took years of scientific investigation to uncover. Dr. Daly was a key contributor to this research. During her 26 years at the College of Medicine—from 1960 until she retired in 1986—she led Einstein investigations into the impact of diet and cholesterol on arteries and the link between hypertension and increased risk of heart attack. She also studied how smoking affects the lungs and helped determine how creatine (a naturally occurring energy source found in meat and fish) is absorbed from the blood by muscle tissue.

Dr. Daly majored in chemistry at Queens College, graduating magna cum laude in 1942. She then earned a master’s in chemistry from New York University in 1943, a Ph.D. degree in chemistry from Columbia University in 1947, and taught for two years at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

After obtaining a grant from the American Cancer Society, she worked for several years during the early 1950s at the Rockefeller Institute doing postdoctoral research on the composition and metabolism of components of the cell nucleus. While at Rockefeller, Dr. Daly collaborated with biochemist Alfred E. Mirsky, Ph.D., and cell biologist Vincent G. Allfrey, Ph.D., to make critically important findings on the amino acid composition of histones—the proteins that condense and package DNA into chromosomes and play a vital role in gene expression. Dr. Daly’s work in this area is now considered fundamental to our basic understanding of the organization of DNA. Her histone research was cited by James Watson during his 1962 Nobel Prize lecture on DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis.

In 1955, Dr. Daly pivoted to medical research at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. There she partnered with Quentin Deming, M.D., a heart disease researcher at the Goldwater Memorial Hospital in New York, and they found important links between clogged arteries and high blood pressure—a groundbreaking discovery in 1958. With funding from the American Heart Association, the two took their skills to the new Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1960, just five years after it opened.

At Einstein, Dr. Daly taught biochemistry courses and studied the effects of aging on the circulatory system. She was especially involved in recruiting, training, and mentoring underrepresented students and guided the careers of many future scientists here.

She also was the principal investigator on four National Institutes of Health grants involving hypertension, aortic metabolism, and creatine transport, and co-investigator on three others.

Dr. Daly at work in her Einstein chemistry lab
Dr. Daly at work in her Einstein chemistry lab.

She was named a career scientist at the Health Research Council of the City of New York, a position she held from 1962 to 1972. In addition, she helped develop and run the Martin Luther King, Jr.-Robert F. Kennedy Program for Special Studies at Einstein, which recruited and prepared underrepresented students for medical and graduate school; and she spearheaded cooperative efforts among New York City’s medical schools to recruit and train Black and Hispanic students.

In a letter from 1970, Einstein’s chair of biochemistry, Abraham White, Ph.D., recommended Dr. Daly for promotion, citing her “high qualities of leadership” and valuable scientific contributions. She was awarded tenure in 1971.

An Early Interest in Science

Dr. Daly, who was born in 1921 in Queens, was an avid reader growing up. She told an interviewer in 1992 that her mother, Helen, read to her every night. Her favorite book was the science blockbuster of the day, Microbe Hunters, by American biologist and author Paul de Kruif. Both of her parents encouraged her interest in academics. Her father had almost become a chemist himself, starting an undergraduate degree at Cornell University in 1918. Unable to finish, most likely for financial reasons, he returned home to the Corona neighborhood in Queens and worked as a clerk for the post office.

Dr. Daly enrolled in Hunter College High School for gifted girls, which had an all-female faculty, and her teachers encouraged her to take college-level science courses. She credited the school, with its all-female faculty, for leaving no doubt in her mind that she would succeed as a scientist.

While many of her fellow high school graduates went on to Hunter College for a bachelor’s degree, Dr. Daly opted for the brand-new campus of Queens College, a public university in the Flushing neighborhood. After graduating from Queens College with honors, she obtained a fellowship and part-time tutoring position there, which allowed her to work on her master’s degree at NYU.

Because of the shortage of male scientists during World War II, Dr. Daly was awarded funding for her Ph.D. program at Columbia University. She worked with Mary Letitia Caldwell, Ph.D., who was then the only female chemistry professor at Columbia and a celebrated researcher. “Many of the principles taken for granted in enzymology today were first applied to amylases in Caldwell’s laboratories,” Dr. Daly wrote in 1976. Dr. Daly took less than three years to complete her thesis, “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch,” in 1947. The work was a valuable contribution to research on how enzymes break down food.

Later in her Einstein career, Dr. Daly was made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was a fellow and member of the board of governors of the New York Academy of Sciences. She was also a member of the American Chemical Society, the Harvey Society, the American Society of Biological Chemists, and American Heart Association (fellow, Council on Arteriosclerosis).  She was named one of the Top 50 Women in Science, Engineering, and Technology by the National Technical Association in 1999.

Dr. Daly married physician Vincent Clark in 1961, who had two children with whom she became close. In 1988, she created a merit-based scholarship at Queens College in her parents’ names to support underrepresented students majoring in the physical sciences. She died from cancer in 2003 at age 82.

In an obituary published in Einstein magazine, she was remembered as “a wonderful and generous person with a winning smile … especially devoted to playing the flute. In later years, when cancer interfered with her ability to play the flute, Dr. Daly learned to play the guitar.”