Starting in 2013, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology will issue an annual Mildred Cohn Award in Biological Chemistry. Named after the first female president of the society, then the American Society of Biological Chemists, the award will be for scientists of all career levels who have made substantial advances using innovative physical approaches.
“Mildred was an exceptional scientist and colleague,” says Judith Klinman of the University of California, Berkeley. “Her contributions to science continued unabated over a very long period of time.”
After graduating from high school at the age of 14, Cohn earned a bachelor’s in chemistry in 1931 at Hunter College and earned a master’s in 1932 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1938, both at Columbia University. She was a postdoc at George Washington University with Vincent du Vigneaud and a research associate at Cornell University’s medical school. In 1946, she began her long association with the Carl and Gerty Cori lab at Washington University and was promoted to associate professor in biochemistry in 1958 but left for the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where she became a full professor in 1961. She was the Benjamin Rush Professor Emerita of Physiological Chemistry in the biochemistry and biophysics department.
“Beginning with her Ph.D. studies with Harold Urey at Columbia, Mildred exploited the use of isotopes in her pursuit of understanding both enzyme mechanism and cellular metabolism. One of her most important independent breakthroughs was the development of nuclear magnetic resonance methods for the study of enzyme reactions,” Klinman said. “Mildred was able to overcome the primitive, low-sensitivity instrumentation available at that time, together with the need for enormous quantities of biological samples, to map out the geometry of bound substrates in proximity to paramagnetic metal ions.”
Cohn was president of ASBC from 1978 to 1979 and the first woman appointed to the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board. “Mildred was a true pioneer who was brilliant and whose accomplishments were legion. She was an inspiration to us all,” said Mark Lemmon, ASBMB’s secretary and department chairman at Penn.
“Mildred was always the consummate professional and devoted considerable energy to numerous scientific societies,” Klinman added. Indeed, over the years her efforts were recognized with election to the American Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. She won the National Medal of Science in 1982 and was named to the National Women’s Hall of Fame shortly before her death in 2009.