STEM Women Hall of Fame: Marie Maynard Daly

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Biography

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: [b]Marie Maynard Daly

  • Born: April 16, 1912 in Corona, New York
  • PhD dissertation title: "A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch."
  • Historical context: When she began her college education in the early 1940s, Marie Maynard Daly faced dual discrimination based on her gender and race. In 1940, for instance, only 2 percent of black women attended college.

When Columbia University awarded Marie Maynard Daly her doctoral degree in 1947, Marie Maynard Daly became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in chemistry. Daly's STEM interest was initially sparked in childhood thanks to the influence of her bookworm mother and father who had begun studying chemistry at Cornell University but had to drop out for financial reasons. After Daly graduated high school where she had excelled in chemistry, she continued living at home to save money for her chemistry bachelor's at Queens College in New York, and from there she completed her New York University chemistry masters degree in one year while also working as a laboratory assistant before enrolling in Columbia for her historic chemistry doctorate.

Daly's timing at Columbia was also serendipitous since its chemistry department was then headed by Dr. Mary L. Caldwell, about whom Daly later wrote: "Her manners were rather formal; she rarely addressed her students by first names and scrupulously changed the "Miss" or "Mr." to "Dr." immediately following a successful thesis defense. Despite her formal manner, she conveyed a sense of concern for a student's personal welfare. She could summon a bright word of encouragement when the work was not progressing fast enough, often ending her comments with a philosophical "Well, child, that's research!"

Throughout her academic and post-collegiate career, Daly studied a variety of chemical processes, including: the human body's production of digestive compounds, cholesterol and the causes of heart attacks, and the health impacts of cigarette smoking. She also went on to establish a Queens College scholarship fund for minority science students.