Arda Alden Green (1899-1958) was an American biochemist and protein-purifying pro who worked “in the shadows” of “big names” but made big contributions of her own, including isolating the neurotransmitter serotonin and figuring out why fireflies glow.
Green was born May 7, 1899 in Prospect, Pennsylvania. She earned degrees in chemistry and philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley followed by a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. Her work with isolating proteins began when she took a hiatus from her medical studies to learn from protein chemist Edwin Cohn at Harvard. She returned to Cohn’s lab after graduating and carried out a series of seminal experiments showing how hemoglobin’s ability to transport oxygen throughout the bloodstream is affected by pH. She became a pediatrics research associate, tutored students, and helped Cohn develop methods to isolate blood proteins that were in high demand during WWII.
After 12 years at Harvard, she moved to Washington University in St. Louis to work in the laboratory of Gerty and Carl Cori. If you’ve taken a biochemistry course, you might have heard of the Cori Cycle (the series of biochemical reactions that converts the sugar-storage molecule glycogen into lactate and back again). Gerty Cori & her husband (deservedly) won the Nobel Prize for working it out, but Green helped make their work possible by figuring out how to isolate pure enzymes (molecules that speed up (catalyze) reactions) in the pathway including phosphorylase, which sets the cycle in motion.
She then moved to the Cleveland Clinic, where she studied molecules contributing to blood pressure regulation. In addition to isolating proteins involved in hypertension (high blood pressure) she isolated the neurotransmitter serotonin, an important signaling molecule in the nervous system.
She then went back to Johns Hopkins where she crystallized luciferase, the protein that makes fireflies glow, and helped figure out how it works. She started working on purifying the protein that makes some bacteria glow, but she died from breast cancer before she could finish out this work. Her death also came before she could be formally presented with the Garvan-Olin medal – the highest award for an American female chemist.
Green’s name is often lost in the shadows of the scientists she worked with whose names have been kept at the forefront in part because of having things named after them. In addition to the Coris, she worked with Hans Krebs (who also has a Nobel Prize as well as a biochemical cycle named after him); Leonor Michaelis (the Michaelis-Menten equation describes enzyme kinetics); and Lawrence Henderson (the Henderson-Hasselbach equation relates to pH).
There is no doubt in my mind that Green, who was lauded as a thoughtful mentor as well as a skilled scientist, positively influenced the work of these “legends” and if I ever discover something, I’d like to name it after her!
Photo credit: Marine Biological Laboratory Archives