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Black History Month | #HistoryofBlackExcellence

BY: Sabahat Hussain

Scientists are known not only for pushing the boundaries of human knowledge by their discoveries; they also can break social barriers. Marie M. Daly was one such scientist as she was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. Not only did she overcome both racism and sexism to reach where she wanted to be, her work on hyperextensions also led to a better understanding of heart attacks and their causes. Working with Dr. Quentin B. Denning, they were able to demonstrate that high cholesterol increased the risk of heart attacks by clogging arteries.

Early Life & Education

Daly was born on April 16, 1921 in a household that firmly believed in education and reading. Her mother would often read to her about scientists, which sparked a passion in her. Daly was inspired to be a chemist partly because her father had also studied it, but had been unable to finish his degree, as he did not have the financial means to do so.

By the age of 21, Daly had finished her bachelors at Queen’s College in the top 2.5% of her graduating class and was able to enroll as a graduate student at New York University. Being a gifted student, she was able to complete her masters in just one year, graduating in 1943. A year later, she enrolled in her doctoral program in Columbia University. She completed the program in 3 years, making her the first female African American Ph.D. graduate in America. This accomplishment was astounding, especially considering that this was still about a decade before the civil rights movement that would transform the country.

Daly’s scientific success allowed her to become a part of the Pho Beta Kappa Society, which is the oldest honor society for the liberal arts and sciences in the United States. She was also a member of the New York Academy of Sciences and a fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to name a few.

Advocacy for Equal Opportunities

Being a person of color, Daly understood the difficulty of seeking higher education due to numerous social and economic barriers. So throughout her life, she was a firm advocate for equal opportunities and helped to develop numerous programs to increase the enrolment of minority groups in science programs at the graduate level. To honor her father, she established a scholarship fund in his name for science students at Queen’s College in 1988, 2 years after her retirement as a professor.

Daly’s successful career is notable not only for her research, but also her advocacy to make it easier for other disadvantaged groups to access education. The scientific breakthroughs that Daly made about heart attacks have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives to this day. Her example shows the impact one person can have if they are simply allowed the opportunity to get an education. Today, let’s continue the fight for equal access to education, so that other bright young minds like Daly have nothing holding them back from changing the world.