Mildred Cohn, Biochemist, Is Dead at 96
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: November 11, 2009
Mildred Cohn, a biochemist who overcame religious and sex discrimination to advance the study of metabolic processes, research that contributed to the development of medical technologies like M.R.I.’s, died on Oct. 12 in Philadelphia. She was 96.
The University of Pennsylvania announced her death.
Dr. Cohn, whose honors included the National Medal of Science, helped develop sophisticated techniques and instruments to measure how enzymes and other proteins behave in the body.
She used magnetic forces, for example, to examine the atomic nucleus in order to study the shapes of molecules and identify compounds. Variations on the approach led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging, which is used to create images of internal tissues.
Indeed, her work in developing powerful research instruments was one of her major contributions, the Chemical Heritage Foundation said in a biography of her. “When the right instruments weren’t available, she built her own,” the foundation said.
Moreover, by shedding light on how chemicals produced by the body are processed, her research helped lead to better diagnoses of illnesses, said Nick Zagorski, a senior writer for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Dr. Cohn achieved success only after repeatedly encountering prejudice, from the college professor who told her that being a chemist would not be “ladylike,” to chemical company recruiters who explicitly refused to interview women or Jews, to university departments that would not allow a woman on the track to be a tenured professor. She had to wait 21 years after receiving her Ph.D. to receive her first tenure-track appointment.
Dr. Cohn eventually became the first woman appointed to the editorial board of The Journal of Biological Chemistry and the first woman to become president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
A biography prepared by Washington University in St. Louis, one of the institutions where Dr. Cohn taught and researched, said she had worked in laboratories or written papers with six Nobel laureates. She wrote 160 published papers in all.
Mildred Cohn was born on July 12, 1913, in New York City to Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father was a tailor who invented a machine for cutting cloth more accurately.
She graduated from high school at 14 and moved on to Hunter College, then an all-women’s school, where she majored in chemistry, minored in physics and graduated at 17. The teacher who advised her against being a research chemist urged her to become a chemistry teacher instead.
Afterward, she enrolled in Columbia University’s doctoral program, only to find that she would not be accepted as a teaching assistant because the position was reserved for men. She earned a master’s degree.
She then took a research job at a NASA forerunner, where she was the only woman who worked on a project with 70 men to develop fuel-injection airplane engines. Though she was able to publish two papers there, one as senior author, she left when told that she would not be promoted.
She then returned to Columbia, where she worked on the team of Harold C. Urey, a Nobel laureate, and earned her Ph.D. She studied ways of using the different weights of carbon and other atoms to trace the atoms’ movement in cells.
Dr. Urey helped her join the research team of Vincent du Vigneaud, a biochemistry professor at George Washington University Medical School. There she helped develop methods of tracing isotopes as they move through bodily processes. The tracing methods opened the way for much broader medical research at the molecular level.
In 1946, her husband, Dr. Henry Primakoff, a physicist, joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Cohn accepted a research position there with the husband-and-wife team of Carl and Gerty Cori, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1947.
Dr. Cohn went to Penn in 1960 and became a full professor the next year. In 1964, the American Heart Association chose her to be a career investigator, making her the first woman to hold the position. She did so for 14 years.
Dr. Cohn was also the Benjamin Rush professor of physiological chemistry at Penn and a senior scientist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. She retired in 1985, but continued working in her lab at Penn.
At Washington and at Penn, her research contributed to the understanding of the structure of ATP, a molecule that stores energy for cellular functions. The growing body of knowledge about ATP has had an impact on fields including neuroscience and biotechnology.
Dr. Primakoff, her husband, died in 1983. Dr. Cohn is survived by her daughters, Nina Rossomando and Laura Primakoff; her son, Paul; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
The Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., inducted Dr. Cohn the day after she died. She had learned beforehand that she would receive the honor.
“When I saw that Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were also members,” she said in an interview with ASBMB, the magazine of the biochemistry society, “I decided this could be a good place for me.”