Mildred Cohn

Mildred Cohn (1913-2009) developed methods to track the movement of atoms within cells and was the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). I was thrilled when I learned that the professor whose lab I’m in, Dr. Leemor Joshua Tor, was awarded the ASBMB's 2018 Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry. I didn’t know much about the award’s namesake, so I decided to do some research on Mildred Cohn and I found an incredibly inspirational chemist whose story of overcoming gender and religious discrimination I’d like to share with you this WiSE Wednesday.

Cohn was born in New York in 1913. The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants at a time rife with anti-Semitism, she faced discrimination from a young age. A precocious child, she graduated early from high school, then completed a chemistry degree from Hunter College. She was interested in pursuing higher education, but a professor tried to dissuade her (chemistry was not an “appropriate” career for a woman). “Propriety” be damned, she continued her scientific journey undaunted, receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University. She wanted to immediately continue on to a PhD, but she couldn’t receive a teaching assistantship because the available positions were in an all-male college. Without a funded position, she had to seek out other opportunities, so she joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the precursor to NASA), saving her earnings before returning to Columbia several years later to finally get a PhD in physical chemistry.

A small number of elements (including carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur) serve as basic building blocks for almost all of life’s molecules. Their atoms can be connected and rearranged in various ways to carry out the functions necessary for life (providing structural support, storing information, transferring energy, etc.). These elements have therefore long been subject to intense research but, due to technical limitations, for most of history all that was known about them was from research conducted in test tubes. Cohn wanted to know how these molecules acted inside of living organisms, so she developed techniques to track the movement of atoms inside of cells, helping scientists understand fundamental biochemical processes. This was no easy feat – she even had to learn glass blowing in order to make custom glassware for her experiments – but she had never been one to back down from a challenge. These early experiments, as well as her later research, helped pave the way for medical imaging technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that allow doctors to see inside the body and diagnose problems.

Despite her scientific accomplishments, it took 20 years after earning her PhD before Cohn, was granted associate professorship upon joining the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine (the difficulty women face in obtaining tenure-track positions is not a recent phenomenon). She became a full professor the following year (1961) and in 1964 she became the first female career investigator for the American Heart Association. This honor was followed by numerous other firsts including first woman to serve on The Journal of Biological Chemistry’s editorial board and the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

There is so much to admire about this trailblazing woman – from her innovative science to her deliberate choice to wear a pastel dress to stand out in a picture with a group of men wearing dark suits to her celebrating her 90th birthday by hang gliding. I wish I could have met her but, sadly, she passed away in 2009. The Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry was created in her honor in 2013 and is awarded yearly by the ASBMB to biological chemists using innovative physical approaches to answer life’s questions.

Photo credit: the Institute/Douglas A. Lockard

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