Mildred Cohn was born in New York City. She attended Hunter College in Manhattan. After graduating in 1931 she enrolled at Columbia University and, with Harold Urey, studied ways of separating different isotopes of carbon. She received her Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1937 and obtained a postdoctoral position at George Washington University with Vincent du Vigneaud. In du Vigneaud's laboratory, Cohn pioneered the effort to use isotopic tracers to follow the metabolism of sulfur-containing compounds. In 1946, Cohn went to Washington University to work with Carl and Gerty Cori. There, she used an isotope of oxygen to study the enzyme-catalyzed reactions of organic phosphates and employed nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) toward the same goal.
Cohn was promoted to associate professor in biochemistry in 1958 but left Washington University 2 years later to join the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She became a full professor in 1961 and retired as Benjamin Rush Professor Emerita of Biochemistry and Biophysics in 1982. At the University of Pennsylvania, Cohn pursued NMR research on energy transduction within cells and cellular reactions in which ATP is utilized. She began to look more deeply into the structure and function of enzymes and tRNA. Some of these experiments are featured in a Journal of Biological Chemistry Classic (1).
Cohn received many awards and honors for her contributions to science, including the American Chemical Society's Garvan Medal (1963), the Franklin Institute's Cresson Medal (1975), the National Medal of Science (1982), the Distinguished Service Award of the College of Physicians (1987), the Protein Society Stein-Moore Award (1997), and election to the National Academy of Sciences (1971). She was president of the American Society of Biological Chemists in 1978 and was on the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Board from 1978 to 1980. In addition, Cohn was the first woman to be appointed to the Journal of Biological Chemistry editorial board.
1. Kresge, N., Simoni, R. D., and Hill, R. L. (2004) Succeeding in science despite the odds; studying metabolism with NMR by Mildred Cohn. J. Biol. Chem. 279 (53)