Dr Marie Maynard Daly: The Mother of Genetics and Heart Diseases

By Luisa Roa Gil 3rd year Physiological Sciences student

Illustration of Dr Marie Maynard Daly
Illustration of Dr Marie Maynard Daly by Matteo Farinella on Tumblr

You might expect to instantly recognise the name of someone that contributed to the discovery of DNA structure, revealed the cause of high blood pressure, and became the first African-American woman to obtain a chemistry PhD, right?

However, you may be shocked by how many do not know the story of Dr Marie Maynard Daly – a woman who made multiple advances in science and opened doors for young scientists.

Extraordinary discoveries in multiple areas

As an African-American woman, the path to earning a PhD was not smooth, especially due to lack of funding. However, this did not stop her from achieving greatness.

The need for more scientists during World War II opened the door for her to receive a fellowship from Columbia University to undertake a PhD in Chemistry. Have you ever wondered how the carbohydrates you eat are broken down in your body? Marie explained the role of enzymes in breaking carbohydrates for her PhD thesis.

Later in her life, she became a fellow scientist at the Rockefeller Institute, and she was the only African-American scientist in the building! Here, she explored the human genome and the process of DNA translation.

Dr Marie Maynard Daly

Marie designed techniques to separate the nuclei of different tissues and discovered that there were only significant amounts of specific types of base pairs – the budling blocks of DNA – allowing us to understand which were the main components of our genetic material. Through this work, another question arose – how does the body know the appropriate guidelines to use these base pairs? It is due to histones, structures that label the parts of DNA requiring translation into proteins. We know all this thanks to Marie!

Through her work at Einstein University, she also explained the role of unhealthy lifestyles (e.g. smoking and high sugar diets) in the build-up of fat (cholesterol) in arteries, helping us understand its implications in circulatory problems. She also studied the mechanisms muscles use to obtain energy in activities like heavy lifting or high-intensity workouts. All of her discoveries have relevant implications today and provide a solid foundation for scientific research to date!

More than a scientist!

Marie became an inspiration not only to other researchers but also to aspiring African-American scientists. Before her death in 2003, Marie contributed to more than just advancements in scientific knowledge, as she also helped in the training and recruiting of black scientists and set forth scholarship schemes.

Marie M. Daly inspired upcoming generations and helped establish the foundations of knowledge in genetics, medicine and more!

Genetics, as we know it, is only possible thanks to this overlooked scientist’s legacy.

Interested in studying Physiological Sciences at Newcastle University?

Take a look at our other posts on Women in STEM

If you want to know more about her work and story:

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