January 2010

Retrospective: Mildred Cohn (1913–2009)

It is a pleasure to remember Mildred Cohn as a friend and scientist. Her pioneering use of oxygen-18 for probing enzymatic reactions of phosphate compounds served as a basis for my later investigations. She cordially shared her knowledge of methodology and readily participated in discussions of mutual interest. Much of what I and my colleagues were able to accomplish was made possible by her contributions.

Paul D. Boyer
Nobel Laureate (1997)
Emeritus professor of chemistry
University of California, Los Angeles

***

Mildred Cohn was a brilliant, nationally and internationally respected scientist who was a wonderful role model for her fellow scientists, especially for women. In her quiet way, she broke glass ceilings and was an innovative leader in her field. She was one of a handful of scientists who attended the ASBMB 50th anniversary celebration in 1956 and the 100th anniversary celebration in 2006. At the centennial celebration, at the age of 93, she gave a priceless presentation, highlighting her career at the female scientists’ reception. The presentation captured her resilience and clarity.

Judith S. Bond
Professor and chair biochemistry and molecular biology
The Pennsylvania State University

***

I first met Mildred Cohn at the International Society of Magnetic Resonance meeting in Israel in 1971. I was an associate professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. My expertise was in nuclear spin relaxation in liquids. I was fascinated by the possibility of applying this technique to investigate some biological problems. At one of the conference lunches, I serendipitously ended up sitting next to Mildred and her husband, Henry Primakoff. During the lunch, I sought Mildred’s advice about my desire to apply NMR expertise to biological problems, considering my unfamiliarity with biology. She said that it is possible to overcome the barrier with some effort and stressed the importance of collaborating with biochemists who can identify significant questions to answer. She mention)ed that she knew of physicists who used sophisticated methods to study trivial biological problems. This discussion was at the back of my mind when I wrote to her in 1972 about coming to her lab to explore my goal. She arranged a visiting scientist position for me, and, thus, a pivotal turn in my professional career occurred.

I started working in her group in December 1973. During the first six months, I was clueless as to how I could carve a niche for myself in this new field. Fortunately, Mildred knew how to communicate with and utilize the strengths of a physicist, and before long some significant results emerged.

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