January 2010

Retrospective: Mildred Cohn (1913–2009)

Mildred Cohn 300Mildred Cohn, the first female president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the first woman appointed to the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board, passed away on Oct. 12 at age 96. Information on Cohn’s life and pioneering work in nuclear magnetic resonance can be found in an article, titled “Mildred Cohn: Isotopic and Spectroscopic Trailblazer,” in the September 2009 issue of ASBMB Today. Below are reflections by her friends and colleagues.

Mildred Cohn was one of the great figures of 20th century biochemistry/biophysics. She influenced several generations of scientists with her brilliant use of physical methods to probe the structures and functions of proteins. She was also one of my scientific heroes. She wasn’t very tall, but if, as Robert Browning said, the best way to measure someone is by the length of the shadow that his or her mind casts, then Mildred Cohn was a giant.

Gregory A. Petsko
Gyula and Katica Tauber professor of biochemistry and chemistry
Brandeis University

***

Mildred didn’t have very many graduate students, and I was her last. It was 1976. Mildred distinctly told me that I could do a rotation but that she was no longer taking students. A fellowship allowed me to persist, and, one or two papers later, she officially accepted me as her student. At first, I was intimidated and couldn’t bring myself to call her “Mildred” like everyone else did. She was only slightly younger than my grandmother, and it just didn’t seem right to call someone of her generation by his or her first name!

When Mildred was elected the first female president of the American Society of Biological Chemists (now ASBMB), I don’t recall there being any great fuss about that honor in the lab. She did, however, include me in the presidential festivities at the annual meeting. While I was a student, Mildred also was honored in a fete thrown by members of the chemistry department at Penn.

But it is not the honors that stand out. Mostly, I recall the extreme pleasure of spending hours in her long, narrow and windowless office bouncing around ideas about methods and mechanisms. Mildred’s questions were piercing, and it was quite an education to learn to expect them. She was a fabulous mentor. By example, she taught both scientific integrity and generosity. Mildred also insisted that I earn first authorship on our papers by writing them myself.

Later, in my role as a student, I also got the pleasure of house-sitting for Mildred and Henry in Penn Valley. There, I came to appreciate that in her professional life she was Mildred Cohn, but in her personal life was Mildred Primakoff. In fact, when editing our papers, she would sometimes call my writing girlish, meaning not succinct, and sign her comments “MCP.” It was an era when “male chauvinist pig” was a common phrase, and Mrs. Primakoff enjoyed the irony of her initials!

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