Marie Daly, the African-American scientist who made history discovering the causes of heart attacks

Stephen Nartey January 23, 2023
Marie Daly/photo credit; Vanderbilt School of Medicine

The lives of many women were dictated in the early 1900s by the prevailing social upheavals. Many African-American women were shut out of their dreams by World War II, the Great Depression, segregation of schools, lack of voting rights, and more.

But, this did not hold Marie Daly back from becoming the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry in the U.S. in 1947. She loved science when she was growing up. This was not by accident, as reported by Advanced Science News. Her mom and dad were avid readers and passionate about education. They were deliberate in inculcating the love of science into Daly. They surrounded her with books on science subjects.

Her dad, who once attended Cornell University, had to abandon his dreams of earning a degree in chemistry because of financial challenges. The library at Daly’s grandmother’s house gave her ample access to books to shape her scientific dreams.

Born in Queens, New York in 1921, Daly attended an all-girls school in Manhattan called the Hunter College High School. She had enormous support from family and teachers who assisted in nurturing her dreams for chemistry.

She furthered at Queens College where she did her B.Sc. and graduated magna cum laude in 1942. The college awarded her a fellowship and part-time work as a lab assistant to enable her to complete her Master’s degree at New York University.

Daly decided to pursue a Ph.D. because there were limited opportunities for women during that period, she said. Her strategy was to work as a laboratory assistant and tutor to save money to fund a dream that her father couldn’t accomplish.

In the wake of World War II, many men had to leave their posts to go and fight in the war, which meant there was a shortfall in labor. During this period, Daly received a fellowship that gave her the opportunity to work with Dr. Mary Caldwell’s lab at Columbia University. By 1947, Daly had earned her doctorate degree from Columbia University, where she studied chemicals used by the body to digest food. She became the first Black woman in the U.S. to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry.

Daly was employed afterward at Howard University in Washington D.C. to teach physical science from 1947 to 1948. She was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship from the American Cancer Society to be at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine. She worked with researcher and pioneer in microbiology Alfred Mirsky while there, researching the composition and metabolism in the cell nucleus.

In 1955, Daly carried out research into the causes of heart attacks with Dr. Quentin B. Deming of Columbia University. The two were able to determine that hypertension was an antecedent to atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fats and cholesterol in the artery wall. According to Advanced Science News, they were “the first to discover the link between high cholesterol and clogged arteries, laying the foundation for our understanding of how heart attacks occur and can be prevented.”

Daly also researched how cigarette smoking could have a negative impact on the heart and lungs as well as how sugar played a role in hypertension.

She was instrumental in using her influence and position to break the barriers that posed a challenge to African-American women from aspiring to higher heights in the world of science. In fact, she started a scholarship in 1988 for minority students to study science at Queens College in New York.

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