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October 12: Mildred and the Molecule

Lawrence Bush
October 11, 2016
Mildred Cohen, a biochemist who was awarded the National Medal of Science at the end of a career beset by sexist obstacles, died at 96 on this date in 2009. Cohen was a pioneer in the use of nuclear magnetic resonance for studying enzyme reactions, and revealed a great deal about adenosine triphosphate, a molecule that transports energy within cells for metabolism and is therefore vital for life. Cohen could only afford tuition for a single year at Columbia University and could not receive an assistantship because of her gender. After earning her master’s degree elsewhere in 1932, she returned to Columbia and studied with Harold Urey, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize; Urey helped her secure her first research position, and she remained largely in research because of the difficulties of acquiring an academic position in the sciences as a woman. In 1964, Cohen was the first woman to receive the American Heart Association’s Lifetime Career Award, which provided her with financial support until 65. In 1971, at age 58, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. She was also the first woman on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (she edited the journal from 1958-63 and from 1968-73), and the first woman president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Cohen published more than 150 scientific papers and received several the National Medal of Science in 1982. In 2009, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. “Throughout her life she continued to invite new challenges: for her 90th birthday she celebrated by going hang gliding.”--Chemical Heritage Foundation

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.