Mildred Cohn: The Science of Fearlessness

Mildred Cohn: The Science of Fearlessness

Film transcript

Transcription from video produced posthumously in June 2012, using pre-recorded audio (1987) and video (2004) footage of Mildred Cohn and original interviews with Laura Primakoff (daughter), Eileen Jaffe (graduate student), and Gabriella Kahn (granddaughter) from February 2012. Learn more about Mildred Cohn and additional resources connected to the film.

Mildred Cohn, Ph.D. (1913–2009)

 

Chapter 1. The Science of Fearlessness

 

[CHF Audio Interview]

INTERVIEWER

1, 2, 3, testing . . . This is Leon Gortler interviewing Mildred Cohn in her office at the University of Pennsylvania on December 15, 1987.

Okay, I know you were born in New York on July 12, 1913, but I know almost nothing else about your early life. And so maybe you can tell me a little bit about your family.

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED interview voiceover

My father was a renegade rabbi. He left Russia in about 1907 or thereabouts. My father and my mother knew each other in Europe; they were childhood sweethearts.

LAURA PRIMAKOFF [Mildred’s daughter]
My mother was born in 1913 in the Bronx . . . and for the first 13 years of her life she lived in an apartment in the Bronx. And then at age 13, uh, her father moved the family to a Yiddish-speaking cooperative.

NARRATOR
The Yiddish Cooperative, Heim Gesellschaft, was founded as one of the country’s first housing cooperatives and dedicated itself to the preservation of Yiddish culture.

The residents of this two-block apartment colony defined themselves by their very progressive valuesnamely, education, the arts, and a deep commitment to social justice. In fact, the coop’s mission of collectivism opened its doors to families of otherwise limited means—like the Cohns—and inspired a future of great possibility.

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED interview voiceover
That’s where I grew up essentially. And we had all kinds of activities, cultural activities. You know, everyone had a little Mischa or a Sasha who either played the violin or painted. And we had clubs of all kinds.

NARRATOR

In addition to rich cultural pursuits the radical politics of the cooperative fueled Mildred’s idealism and prepared her to forge a mindful and unique path in the world.

LAURA
The coop is when my mother’s world just, uh, exploded. It was in some ways the most exciting time of her life.

It’s when my mother realized, I think, that there was a life of the mind. She realized that there was a world of ideas that could sustain you.

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED interview voiceover

I was a very bright little girl, I suppose. Also the schools were very crowded, so they kept skipping me all the time. I graduated from high school when I was 14.

NARRATOR

With the nation in the grip of the Great Depression—and only 10 percent of women across the entire country enrolled in college—Mildred’s continued success in school was just another sign of her fortitude.

LAURA

There was no question in her mind that she was going to college, no question whatsoever, and because her family was of extremely limited means, she was going to go to Hunter College, which was free for women.

[APS Interview] 

MILDRED

I had taken chemistry for two years in high school, and I liked it very much. And at college I initially intended to be a chemistry major, but then I was interested in everything. I couldn’t make up my mind. But I decided that I could study other things by myself, but science I would have to study formally at college.

NARRATOR

Mildred majored in chemistry with other hardworking Hunter students and flourished in the program. Yet as she neared graduation, it seemed a teaching career was being molded for her, and Mildred had different plans.

LAURA

My mother’s father was her greatest supporter. So he gave her this very interesting message, which is, “Mildred, you are capable of doing anything that you choose. But you’ve got to be realistic. You are female. And you are a Jew. And that is something that you are going to have to navigate. You are going to have to somehow figure out a way to get around the kind of discrimination that you are going to encounter.”

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED interview voiceover
I had the vague idea that if I got a Ph.D., I could do research. I really didn’t know whether it would be in industry or academia or in a government laboratory. I was really very ignorant.

LAURA
Most of her family was opposed to her becoming a chemist—a research chemist. Her mother wanted her to be a schoolteacher.

 

Chapter 2. Where Bigotry Meets Chutzpah

NARRATOR

Mildred entered Columbia University in 1931 for graduate school in chemistry, working at a department store and as a camp counselor to earn the $300 tuition.

In just a year she’d earned her master’s degree, which fueled her ambition for further education. Yet Mildred met a number of obstacles and prejudices.

Unable to afford more schooling, Mildred took her degree and found her first job: at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in Virginia. She was the only woman at the plant.

LAURA

She had never been out of New York City, basically; so now she’s in Tidewater, Virginia. Well, she might as well have been in the heart of Africa as far as she was concerned.

It was completely foreign to her, the culture there, peoples’ worldview, and so on; but true to Mildred’s style, she landed on her feet.

NARRATOR 

Mildred eventually became a fuel-injection chemist of the NACA—the predecessor to NASA.

LAURA

The big honcho from Washington, the director of the entire agency, came and he saw Mildred in the lab, which apparently for him was a no-no. So he writes this memo saying that there are not to be women in the lab. And as my mother comments on, this was because women were a distraction. You never know what would happen to the male scientists if there was a woman in the lab.

What’s fascinating is in her memoir when she writes about this incident, she can’t believe as she says her own chutzpah—she was only 20 years old at the time. She goes to her boss, and she says to him, “If I’m not allowed to do research in the lab, I’ll design the experiments and perhaps you can find someone—you know, one of these male colleagues of mine—and they can be like my surrogate in the lab.”

To her amazement her boss says “okay.”

NARRATOR

After being inspired by engineering at the NACA—and earning enough for tuition—Mildred returned to Columbia to finish her Ph.D. in physical chemistry.

Always aligning herself with progressive thinkers, Mildred pursued lab work with Harold Urey, a Nobel laureate. He was convinced she wouldn’t want this position, as in his words he paid no attention to his graduate students. Mildred persisted—true to form—and got what she wanted: Nobel-level research opportunities and the freedom to pursue her own interests.

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED voiceover

I’ve worked with many of the greats. Almost everyone I’ve ever worked with is a Nobel laureate, but of them all, Urey had the fastest mind.

NARRATOR

During her time at Columbia, Mildred met another influential figure, this time in a physics course: her future husband, Henry Primakoff.

LAURA

My father was a theoretical physicist, and his career was focused on the study of elementary particles. He was a scientific peer of my mother’s in his own field.

What she says about my father is not only was he intelligent—actually, I’ll tell you what I think—not only was he intelligent, he made her laugh. He was extremely witty. He was extremely clever.

They had so much in common, culturally, intellectually, philosophically, politically. They were soul mates.

When she was at Columbia, I mean, this is the Depression. The job market is nonexistent.

The recruiters from industry, which is a major employer for a chemist, would come and they would post in no uncertain terms “Male Christians Only.”

NARRATOR

Armed with a Ph.D. in an inhospitable job environment, Mildred sought work elsewhere, and found a position in the lab of one of Urey’s colleagues, Dr. Vincent du Vigneaud, who at first refused to hire a woman.

[APS Interview]

MILDRED

They told him I was the only one in the country who was qualified.

Now that wasn’t so far from the truth . . .

LAURA

Because she was the only physical chemist on his team, early on arriving and throughout the time she was there, she built apparatus.

He would ask her sometimes to repair things. He would ask her to build things. And she built her first mass spectrometer.

NARRATOR

A mass spectrometer essentially weighs molecules by passing them through an electromagnetic field. And Mildred built one—something her male colleagues were unable to do.

This fueled her interest in understanding chemical reactions at the atomic level and continued a long career defined by innovation and technology.

 

Chapter 3. Using Every Minute Well

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED interview voiceover

I had two children while I was working for du Vigneaud.

It was not easy because my first two children were born during World War II. And to get domestic help of any kind was very difficult. I did, but it wasn’t easy.

LAURA

When she was at work, when she was at the lab, she was fully engaged, and I think she had to have been a very efficient person in the lab.

She used every minute well. When she was at home, she was not thinking about work. So she compartmentalized work and home.

So du Vigneaud had a team, and my mother was part of that team. The impression I have is that she learned a tremendous amount scientifically, but much to her dismay and frustration she did not get to do her own independent research.

NARRATOR

Looking to move on with her career, Mildred encouraged her husband to accept a new teaching appointment at Washington University in St. Louis, giving her the perfect opportunity to accept a research position in the School of Medicine’s biochemistry lab.

Being a woman of uncompromising ambition, Mildred allied herself again with the brightest minds, working this time with Nobel Prize winners Carl Cori and his wife, Gerty Cori—the first American woman to earn the honor.

[APS Interview]

MILDRED

But I hadn’t come to St. Louis to be, uh, someone else’s assistant for the rest of my life.

So I started a new field of research there, which turned out to be fairly successful.

NARRATOR

Here Mildred set up a radioactive-isotope laboratory and built another mass spectrometer. This enterprising habit—simply creating an instrument or material she didn’t have—earmarked Mildred’s spectacular career.

Her research led to groundbreaking work in nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR—the technology that makes MRIs possible.

[APS Interview]

MILDRED

The place was just so stimulating. I think six people who passed through that laboratory have gotten Nobel prizes (slight smile). And most of the rest are in the National Academy. I mean, it was fantastic the kind of people who were there. So it was very lively. We used to have lunch together every day, and any topic could be talked about. It needn’t be science at all.

 

Chapter 4. The Value of Learning

NARRATOR

Washington University had been Mildred’s launchpad for truly original work, and she continued to pursue research opportunities wherever they led her.

In 1960 Mildred and Henry moved to Philadelphia for permanent teaching appointments at the University of Pennsylvania, where she’d spend the next 22 years of her career.

EILEEN JAFFE [Mildred’s graduate student]

Mildred was a tiny woman. She was very small. But when she walked into the room, it was very clear that she filled the place up. And everybody treated her with the utmost respect.

I had read about her work on the structure of ATP and the pioneering work that she had done with P-31 NMR. She was really renowned in the field.

I was thrilled to find her because, well, for a number of reasons. She turned out to be a fabulous mentor.

She was an incredibly warm person, um, but she was also very demanding, scientifically demanding. And I knew if I was going to show her data, I had better be able to answer a lot of questions about that data, and I had better have planned the next logical experiment. (laughs)

She was very generous with her ideas. People loved to talk to her about their science because she would just give them ideas!

GABRIELLA KAHN [Mildred’s granddaughter]

I do have these memories of when I was younger and she brought us to her lab. And it was the first time I’d ever been on Penn’s campus, and I just thought it was the coolest thing. And, you know, showing us the things that we would think were really cool.

 I’m not sure how old I was at the time, probably, uh, third, fourth grade, but we made books about our heroes. So I wrote mine about my grandma; I drew pictures of when I went to visit the lab, and my grandma in the lab, and it just made a really big impression on me.

NARRATOR

In 1983 Mildred’s husband, Henry, died after a long illness.

[APS Interview]

MILDRED
That was quite a blow. We’d been married 45 years. And he had always been very supportive. I always said that the luckiest thing I ever did was marry a man who really believed that I should have a career. I mean he didn’t just pay lip service to that; he really meant it.

LAURA

For her 90th-birthday celebration she had requested to have her children arrange for her to go hang gliding. And the flight lasted probably 15 or 20 minutes. And her comment upon landing was that it was great; she wished it had lasted much longer. (laughs)

She just, uh, she could have stayed up there forever.

I think that my mother’s scientific career was marked by serendipity combined with talent and persistence.

There are sort of two pillars of what I think guided her as a person and as a scientist, which I think she really learned from her own father—and that is the principle of social justice and the valuing of learning, and of, if one is able, making a contribution to the store of human knowledge.

[CHF Audio Interview]

MILDRED interview voiceover

I’ve had a very successful and satisfying career ; it’s been fun.

 

EPILOGUE

Mildred published over 160 scientific articles and was among the first to study metabolism using electron spin and nuclear magnetic resonance.

Mildred received the National Medal of Science in 1982 for her pioneering work with isotopes in NMR. She was the first female biochemist to receive this honor.

Every summer Mildred and Henry took the family on extended vacations, never once checking in at the lab.

Mildred Cohn is survived by her three children—Nina, Paul, and Laura—six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Reflections on Careers

Learn more about women's contributions to science through CHF's Women in Chemistry oral histories.

Stories from the Field

Listen to career insights and stories of scientific adventures from women in chemistry.