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Mildred Cohn

Mildred Cohn

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard

  • Born: July 12, 1913, New York, New York
  • Died: October 12, 2009

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0080
Interview Dates: December 15, 1987 and January 6, 1988
Location: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Interviewer: Leon B. Gortler
No. of pages: 128
Minutes: 336
Sponsor: American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

  Abstract of Interview

Mildred Cohn begins the interview by reflecting on her childhood, education, and family life, describing how she was prepared to enter college by age fourteen. She then discusses her undergraduate experience at Hunter College, recalling the difficulties she encountered as a woman in the sciences. She continues by recounting her graduate years at Columbia, where, after working for a short time at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, she began her work with isotopes in Urey's lab. She tells of her experience working with du Vigneaud at George Washington and Cornell universities and contrasts that with the much more independent atmosphere of the Cori's lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Finally she describes her years at the University of Pennsylvania and highlights the most fulfilling aspects of her work. She concludes with her analysis of the future of biochemistry and advice for those, especially women, interested in pursuing a career in the natural sciences.


1931 B.A., Chemistry, Hunter College
1932 M.S., Chemistry, Columbia University
1938 Ph.D., Chemistry, Columbia University

  Professional Experience

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

1932 - 1934

George Washington University School of Medicine

1937 - 1938 Research Associate in Biochemistry

Cornell University, Medical College

1938 - 1946 Research Associate in Biochemistry

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

1946 - 1958 Research Associate in Biochemistry

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis

1958 - 1960 Associate Professor of Biochemistry

Harvard Medical School

1950 - 1951 Research Associate

University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine

1960 - 1961 Associate Professor of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry

University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine

1961 - 1978 Professor of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry

University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine

1978 - 1982 Benjamin Rush Professor of Physiological Chemistry

University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine

1982 - present Benjamin Rush Professor of Physiological Chemistry, Emeritus

Fox Chase Institute for Cancer Research

1982 - 1985 Senior Member


1952 - 1958 Established Investigator, American Heart Association
1963 Garvan Medal, American Chemical Society
1964 - 1978 Career Investigator, American Heart Association
1971 National Academy of Sciences
1972 American Philosophical Society
1975 Sc.D., Medical College of Pennsylvania
1975 Cresson Medal, Franklin Institute

American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1977 Foreign Member, Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, Paris, France
1978 Sc.D., Radcliffe College
1979 Award, International Organization of Women Biochemists
1980 Award, U.S. Senior Scientist, Humboldt Foundation, Federal Republic of Germany
1981 Sc.D., Washington University, St. Louis
1981 Chancellor's Distinguished Visiting Professorship, University of California, Berkeley
1982 National Medal of Science
1984 Sc.D., University of Pennsylvania
1984 Sc.D., Brandeis University
1984 Sc.D., Hunter College
1984 Award, American Academy of Achievement
1985 Sc.D., University of North Carolina
1985 - present Visiting Professor of Biological Chemistry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
1986 Chandler Medal, Columbia University
1987 Distinguished Service Award, College of Physicians, Philadelphia
1988 Honorary National Member, Iota Sigma Pi
1988 Remsen Award, Maryland Section, American Chemical Society
1988 Ph.D. (honorary), Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel
1990 Sc.D., University of Miami

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Family and Childhood 1

Parents come to the United States. Early education. Interest in chemistry develops. Early social and home life. Graduates high school at fourteen and enters college despite age and gender.

Hunter College 4

Difficulites of being a young woman in college. Lack of high-caliber chemistry curriculum. Organic chemistry course. Professor Hendel sparks interest in physical chemistry. Encourages development of science courses for non-science majors. Preparing for graduate school. The typical Hunter student of the time. Work during the summers.

Columbia University 10

Catching up in organic chemistry, thermodynamics, and the phase rule. Courses and association with Urey. Unexpected lack of research opportunities. Receives master's degree. Unable to continue education because of lack of funds; teaching assistantships unavailable to women.

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) 13

Begins as junior scientific aide doing computational work. Becomes chemist in the Fuel Injection Section. Publishes first two articles. Discriminated against because female. Leave of absence to return to school.

Return to Columbia University 16

Attempts to enter all-male chemical engineering program to no avail. Enrolls in chemistry courses to pass qualifying examination for Ph.D. program in chemistry. Chooses Urey as research director. Meets Henry Primakoff (future husband). Works on isotopic separation and exchange. Learns deuterium analysis. Travels to Princeton to use mass spectrometer. Studies isotopic oxygen echange in the liquid state quite successfully. Received Ph.D. Accepts a postdoc with Urey. Anti-Semitism.

George Washington University 38

Begins work in biochemistry using deuterium as a tracer with du Vigneaud, who is reluctant to accept a woman. Marriage. Attitude of Columbia University administration and chemistry department toward students.

Cornell Medical College 41

Continues work with du Vigneaud. Uses Columbia's facilities to make deuteromethyl alcohol.

Atmosphere at Columbia University 42

Exciting intellectual environment. Seminars by professors at the frontiers of their fields.

Research with du Vigneaud 44

Publications with du Vigneaud. Work with transmethylation and amino acid metabolism. Discovery of transmethylation in rats. Studies conversion of methionine into cystine in rats. Du Vigneaud's relationship with his postdocs.

Washington University, St. Louis 51

Works with Carl Cori's department. Interest in phosphorylation begins. Difficulties of working and raising children during the war. Sets up radioactive isotope laboratory. Builds mass spectrometer. Comparison of instrumentation, laboratory organization and milieu, and financial support at Washington University versus Cornell. Family members in science. Husband's physics position and its impact on her research. Studies hydrolysis of glucose-1-phosphate.

Harvard Medical School 61

Reason for accepting temporary position at Harvard. Impetus for paper on oxidative phosphorylation. Learns to prepare active mitochondria. Paul Boyer's work on the 18O phosphate exchange.

Return to Washington University 65

Continues work on oxidative phosphorylation. Interest in enzyme mechanisms of kinases and use of EPR. Works on enzymatic transfer of phosphoryl groups. Earlier magnetochemistry work. Exploratory studies of molybdenum proteins. Turns from EPR to NMR. Becomes established investigator for the American Heart Association.

Oxford University 69

Works in Kreb's laboratory on sabbatical. Conceives of investigating phosphorus in ATP and ADP with NMR.

Varian Associates 71

Interest in looking at 31P in ATP, ADP, and AMP. Very limited access to Varian's NMR instrument.

Return to Washington University 73

Traveling to Urbana to use NMR spectrometer. Collaborated on grant proposal to NIH for Washington University spectrometer. Modification of the spectrometer to include temperature control. pH dependence of the chemical shifts of ADP and ATP. Effects of magnesuim, zinc, and calcuim on the 31P chemical shift. Appointed associate professor. Reason for shift in research emphasis during the 1960s.

University of Pennsylvania (Penn) 78

The Johnson Foundation. Circumstances of first visits to Penn. Full professorship. Studies function and role of ATP in enyzme reactions. Uses relaxation rates to study how manganese is bound. Receives Garvan Award. Jack Leigh. Comparison of Penn with Washington University. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Career investigatorship with the American Heart Association. Research on EPR spectra of protein-bound manganese and on 31P NMR of enzyme-bound substrates. Works with thio analogs of ATP.

Institute for Cancer Research, Fox Chase 95

The Fox Chase Center. Initiates collaboration on study of regulation of kinase activity by calmodulin using proton NMR.

Professional Organizations 96

Involvement in American Society of Biological Chemists (ASBC) and American Chemical Society (ACS). Editorial board of Journal of Biological Chemistry. Agenda, style of leadership, and accomplishments as first woman president of ASBC.

Awards 100

Established and Career Investigatorships with American Heart Association. Suggests Garvan Award be limited to women under forty. Comments on most satisfying research. Election to National Academy of Sciences.

Future of Biochemistry 101

Discussion of past progress and future of techniques and instrumentation. Shift in emphasis in the biochemistry field from pathways and mechanisms to regulation. Advice for young students; hot fields.

Notes 105

Index 110

  About the Interviewers

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds A.B. and M.S. degrees from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.

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