Today: Mildred Cohn, who overcame widespread bigotry to become one of the great scientists of our time.
Mildred was so talented that in 1927 when she was just 14 years old, barely high school age, she was admitted to New York’s Hunter College majoring in Chemistry.
But some of her instructors belittled her for taking a seat that “rightfully” belonged to a man. And despite being an extraordinary chemistry student, Mildred couldn’t even become a paid teaching assistant, a job available only to men. She instead baby sat.
Despite these problems, she got her Bachelor’s Degree at 17 and at 18 her Master’s Degree from prestigious Columbia University.
But even with her remarkable academic achievements, jobs for her were scarce because not only was she a woman, but Jewish. In science, as in many other fields, most jobs were reserved for white male Christians.
Few employers would even interview her. But Mildred got a job at a forerunner of NASA, a place where it appeared her talents would be needed and appreciated.
For two years, Mildred was the only female scientist among 70 male scientists and recognized for her outstanding work. But she could never get a promotion or even equal pay.
Meanwhile, she got her doctorate at Columbia becoming Dr. Mildred Cohn, and went on to assist biochemist Vincent du Vigneaud, who later won a Nobel Prize. He would be the first of four Nobel Prize winners who would invite her to work with them.
With this highly recognized talent, you might think Mildred would have her own lab. But being a woman in the 1940’s and 50’s, the odds were long and it was not to be.
In fact male scientists would sometimes ask her to clean their lab equipment. It seems a woman’s work is never done and apparently in their minds it would have been inappropriate for them to clean up after themselves.
But through all of these trials she faced, Mildred dreamed of a job she hoped one day to attain. It was to become a professor and do research of her own choosing, a dream that seemed a distant hope.
Despite her professional frustrations, Mildred had plenty of happiness in her life. For example, in 1938 she married theoretical physicist Henry Primakoff.
“My greatest piece of luck,” she told Elga Wasserman in a 1995 letter quoted in Ms.Wasserman’s book, The Door in the Dream: Conversations With Eminent Women in Science, “was marrying Henry Primakoff, an excellent scientist who treated me as an intellectual equal and always assumed that I should pursue a scientific career and behaved accordingly.” *
Meanwhile, Mildred’s research brought a long series of chemistry and physics breakthroughs as she created scientific instruments and revolutionized the studies of proteins, enzymes and other chemical compounds.
Her work later even helped lead to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI’s). Yet no university would consider her for a tenured professorship and she continued to work in labs for men, some of them with a fraction of her qualifications.
Mildred remained a research assistant. But the good news was because she had no teaching or administrative responsibilities, she had more time to enjoy motherhood and to devote herself to her and Henry’s three children.
Then finally in 1960, the career breakthrough Mildred had always dreamed of came true.
At the age of 47, 22 years after receiving her doctorate, she became an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania when she and Henry joined the faculty. A year later, she became a full professor.
There she could conduct the research of her choice, as well as holding a tenured professorship, a professional relationship she joyfully held for the next 25 years, for who could appreciate its value more than her. And Mildred also became a senior scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center.
In 1985, two years after Henry’s death, Mildred retired at the age of 73, but never slowed down. She kept an office at Penn and remained active in research for the rest of her life, until in 2009, she passed away at the age of 96.
Altogether she published 160 research papers and was widely recognized as a giant in her field. In 1983, President Reagan bestowed upon her the highest U.S. honor for scientists, the National Medal of Science.
And shortly before her death, upon learning she would be inducted into The Women’s Hall of Fame, Mildred stated with a wry sense of humor, “When I saw that Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were also members, I decided that could be a good place for me.” **
It was a good place for Mildred, who had overcome widespread bigotry and tremendous setbacks to become a giant in her field as she conducted research that has made our lives better.
Success Tip of the Week:
If you have a dream, as Mildred Cohn showed us, never give up. Your perseverance could make all the difference in the world not only for you but for others who could benefit by your accomplishments.
*This quote is from The Washington Post, “Scientist overcame bias to excel in biochemistry and biophysics,” Mildred’s obituary published on 10/23/09.
In the next KazanToday:
Two of the most important words in any language.
**This quote is from The New York Times, “Mildred Cohn, Biochemist, Is Dead at 96,” her obituary published 11/11/09.