Barbara Low (1920-2019). Earlier this year, the scientific community lost one of its trailblazing female crystallographers, Dr. Barbara Low, who helped determine the structure of the antibiotic penicillin, discovered new protein “shapes” and advocated for diversity among the Columbia University’s faculty, students, and workforce while a professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, motivated in part by a desire to make the discrimination faced by her former mentor, the now-legend Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, a thing of the past.
Low was born Barbara Wharton Rogers in Lancaster, England March 23, 1920. She graduated from Somerville College with a B.A. in chemistry in 1943. Then she entered Oxford to pursue a master’s & PhD in chemistry.
While a graduate student at Oxford, Barbara Low, along with her advisor Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, solved the crystal structure of the antibiotic penicillin in 1945 – at the time it was the largest molecule ever solved by x-ray crystallography – and its discovery came at a time it was greatly needed. It was in the midst of World War II, when battlefield wounds and infections were rampant, and knowing the structure helped chemists develop modified versions of penicillin to treat a wider range of infections.
After graduating, she emigrated to the United States, where she helped introduce x-ray crystallography as a technique for studying proteins. She took research assistant positions with Linus Pauling at Cal Tech and Edwin Cohn at Harvard before being appointed an assistant professor of biophysical chemistry at Harvard in 1950. While there, she discovered the “pi helix” – a special type of shape (conformation) that parts of proteins often form (for the geeky among us, this is where N-H groups in the protein backbone hydrogen-bond with C=O groups 5 letters upstream (instead of the “usual” 4 you find in the more common alpha helix).
Low spent most of her career at Columbia University’s Vageos College of Physicians and Surgeons – joining as an associate professor in 1956 and working up to full professorship, formally retiring in 1990, but continuing to give periodic lectures until 2013.
The penicillin success when Low was a graduate student didn’t turn out to be a “peaking early” thing when it came to scientific accomplishments. Low carried out early work on the structure of insulin & neurotoxins like those found in snake venoms – and her findings helped scientists better understand how brain receptors for a signaling molecule called acetylcholine work.
Additionally, Low served on Columbia’s affirmative-action committee, where she advocated strongly for a diverse faculty. According to a former postdoc of hers, Dr. Philip Bourne, “She was leading a charge that really improved the situation for women in science, and she suffered a lot of bruises for it https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/barbara-low-pioneer-x-ray-crystallography
Barbara Wharton Low died January 10, 2019 at the age of 98.
Photo: Low estate