During the Harlem Renaissance, work by creatives like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Jacob Lawrence captivated the public, but for Marie Maynard Daly the sciences were what captured her attention and set her on a path to become the first Black woman in America to earn a Ph.D in chemistry.
Born in New York in 1921, Daly’s father, Ivan, was a postal worker who had immigrated from the West Indies and studied chemistry at Cornell University, but left for financial reasons.
“My father wanted to become a scientist but there weren’t opportunities for him as a Black man at that time,” she told Contemporary Black Biography.
But her family encouraged her exploration of the field and she earned a bachelor’s degree from Queens College, a master’s degree from New York University, which she completed in a year, and ultimately her doctorate from Columbia University in 1947 with a dissertation on how human body chemicals help to digest food.
Daly spent two years teaching at Howard University before performing post-doctoral research at the Rockefeller Institute for seven years with molecular biology pioneer Alfred E. Mirsky. She returned to Columbia in 1955 to work with Dr. Quentin Demming to research the causes of heart attacks.
In 1971, she was awarded tenure at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. She continued there doing groundbreaking research – particularly on the effect cigarette smoke has on the lungs — until her retirement in 1986.
Daly never discussed in detail her experiences as a Black woman in higher education, but there is little doubt that she had a rough path to navigate. In 1940, for example, only 2% of Black women had college degrees.
This led her to play an active role in increasing diversity in undergraduate and graduate programs. In 1988, she established a scholarship in her father’s name for African Americans students studying science at Queens College. She not only pushed through to academic and career milestones for herself, she made she left the door as open as possible for the scientists of color and women who came after her.
She was later made a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1999, she was named one of the Top 50 Women in Science, Engineering and Technology by the National Technical Association.
Daly, who married Vincent Clark in 1961, also held positions in several science focused organizations including American Chemical Society, the Harvey Society, the American Society of Biological Chemists, and the American Heart Association where she had been an investigator during the early 60s. She died in New York in 2003.
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