Mildred Cohn

Born: July 12, 1913 | New York , NY, US
Died: October 12, 2009 | Philadelphia, PA, US
Photograph of Mildred Cohn

CHF Collections, Photograph by Douglas A. Lockard

Mildred Cohn advanced through her early schooling rapidly, being prepared to enter college by age fourteen. She matriculated at Hunter College, though facing difficulties as a woman in the sciences. She moved on to graduate school at Columbia, where, after working for a short time at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, she began her work with isotopes in Harold Urey's lab. She worked with du Vigneaud at George Washington and Cornell universities and at the Cori's lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Cohn spent much of her career at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0080
No. of pages: 119
Minutes: 332

Interview Sessions

Leon B. Gortler
15 December 1987 and 6 January 1988
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Mildred Cohn begins the interview by reflecting on her childhood, education, and family life, describing how she was prepared to enter college by age fourteen. She then discusses her undergraduate experience at Hunter College, recalling the difficulties she encountered as a woman in the sciences. She continues by recounting her graduate years at Columbia, where, after working for a short time at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, she began her work with isotopes in Urey's lab. She tells of her experience working with du Vigneaud at George Washington and Cornell universities and contrasts that with the much more independent atmosphere of the Cori's lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Finally she describes her years at the University of Pennsylvania and highlights the most fulfilling aspects of her work. She concludes with her analysis of the future of biochemistry and advice for those, especially women, interested in pursuing a career in the natural sciences. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1931 City University of New York, Hunter College BA Chemistry
1932 Columbia University MS Chemistry
1938 Columbia University PhD Chemistry

Professional Experience

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

1932 to 1934

George Washington University

1937 to 1938
Research Associate

Weill Cornell Medical College

1938 to 1946
Research Associate in Biochemistry

Washington University in St. Louis

1946 to 1958
Research Associate in Biochemistry, Medical School
1958 to 1960
Associate Professor of Biochemistry, Medical School

Harvard Medical School

1950 to 1951
Research Associate

University of Pennsylvania Medical School

1960 to 1961
Associate Professor of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry
1961 to 1978
Professor of Biophysics and Physical Biochemistry
1978 to 1982
Benjamin Rush Professor of Physiological Chemistry
1982 to 1989
Benjamin Rush Professor of Physiological Chemistry, Emeritus

Fox Chase Cancer Center

1982 to 1985
Senior Member


Year(s) Award
1952 to 1958

Established Investigator, American Heart Association


Garvan Medal, American Chemical Society

1964 to 1978

Career Investigator, American Heart Association


National Academy of Sciences


American Philosophical Society


ScD, Medical College of Pennsylvania


Cresson Medal, Franklin Institute


American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Foreign Member, Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, Paris, France


ScD, Radcliffe College


Award, International Organization of Women Biochemists


Award, US Senior Scientist, Humboldt Foundation, Federal Republic of Germany


ScD, Washington University, St. Louis


Chancellor's Distinguished Visiting Professorship, University of California, Berkeley


National Medal of Science


ScD, University of Pennsylvania


ScD, Brandeis University


ScD, Hunter College


Award, American Academy of Achievement


ScD, University of North Carolina

1985 to 1989

Visiting Professor of Biological Chemistry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine


Chandler Medal, Columbia University


Distinguished Service Award, College of Physicians, Philadelphia


Honorary National Member, Iota Sigma Pi


Remsen Award, Maryland Section, American Chemical Society


Ph.D. (honorary), Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel


ScD, University of Miami

Table of Contents

Family and Childhood

Parents come to the United States. Early education. Interest in chemistry develops. Early social and home life. Graduates high school at fourteen and enters college despite age and gender.

Hunter College

Difficulites of being a young woman in college. Lack of high-caliber chemistry curriculum. Organic chemistry course. Professor Hendel sparks interest in physical chemistry. Encourages development of science courses for non-science majors. Preparing for graduate school. The typical Hunter student of the time. Work during the summers.

Columbia University

Catching up in organic chemistry, thermodynamics, and the phase rule. Courses and association with Urey. Unexpected lack of research opportunities. Receives master's degree. Unable to continue education because of lack of funds; teaching assistantships unavailable to women.

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)

Begins as junior scientific aide doing computational work. Becomes chemist in the Fuel Injection Section. Publishes first two articles. Discriminated against because female. Leave of absence to return to school.

Return to Columbia University

Attempts to enter all-male chemical engineering program to no avail. Enrolls in chemistry courses to pass qualifying examination for PhD program in chemistry. Chooses Urey as research director. Meets Henry Primakoff (future husband). Works on isotopic separation and exchange. Learns deuterium analysis. Travels to Princeton to use mass spectrometer. Studies isotopic oxygen echange in the liquid state quite successfully. Received PhD. Accepts a postdoc with Urey. Anti-Semitism.

George Washington University

Begins work in biochemistry using deuterium as a tracer with du Vigneaud, who is reluctant to accept a woman. Marriage. Attitude of Columbia University administration and chemistry department toward students.

Cornell Medical College

Continues work with du Vigneaud. Uses Columbia's facilities to make deuteromethyl alcohol.

Atmosphere at Columbia University

Exciting intellectual environment. Seminars by professors at the frontiers of their fields.

Research with du Vigneaud

Publications with du Vigneaud. Work with transmethylation and amino acid metabolism. Discovery of transmethylation in rats. Studies conversion of methionine into cystine in rats. Du Vigneaud's relationship with his postdocs.

Washington University, St. Louis

Works with Carl Cori's department. Interest in phosphorylation begins. Difficulties of working and raising children during the war. Sets up radioactive isotope laboratory. Builds mass spectrometer. Comparison of instrumentation, laboratory organization and milieu, and financial support at Washington University versus Cornell. Family members in science. Husband's physics position and its impact on her research. Studies hydrolysis of glucose-1-phosphate.

Harvard Medical School

Reason for accepting temporary position at Harvard. Impetus for paper on oxidative phosphorylation. Learns to prepare active mitochondria. Paul Boyer's work on the 18O phosphate exchange.

Return to Washington University

Continues work on oxidative phosphorylation. Interest in enzyme mechanisms of kinases and use of EPR. Works on enzymatic transfer of phosphoryl groups. Earlier magnetochemistry work. Exploratory studies of molybdenum proteins. Turns from EPR to NMR. Becomes established investigator for the American Heart Association.

Oxford University

Works in Kreb's laboratory on sabbatical. Conceives of investigating phosphorus in ATP and ADP with NMR.

Varian Associates

Interest in looking at 31P in ATP, ADP, and AMP. Very limited access to Varian's NMR instrument.

Return to Washington University

Traveling to Urbana to use NMR spectrometer. Collaborated on grant proposal to NIH for Washington University spectrometer. Modification of the spectrometer to include temperature control. pH dependence of the chemical shifts of ADP and ATP. Effects of magnesuim, zinc, and calcuim on the 31P chemical shift. Appointed associate professor. Reason for shift in research emphasis during the 1960s.

University of Pennsylvania (Penn)

The Johnson Foundation. Circumstances of first visits to Penn. Full professorship. Studies function and role of ATP in enyzme reactions. Uses relaxation rates to study how manganese is bound. Receives Garvan Award. Jack Leigh. Comparison of Penn with Washington University. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Career investigatorship with the American Heart Association. Research on EPR spectra of protein-bound manganese and on 31P NMR of enzyme-bound substrates. Works with thio analogs of ATP.

Institute for Cancer Research, Fox Chase

The Fox Chase Center. Initiates collaboration on study of regulation of kinase activity by calmodulin using proton NMR.

Professional Organizations

Involvement in American Society of Biological Chemists (ASBC) and American Chemical Society (ACS). Editorial board of Journal of Biological Chemistry. Agenda, style of leadership, and accomplishments as first woman president of ASBC.


Established and Career Investigatorships with American Heart Association. Suggests Garvan Award be limited to women under forty. Comments on most satisfying research. Election to National Academy of Sciences.

Future of Biochemistry

Discussion of past progress and future of techniques and instrumentation. Shift in emphasis in the biochemistry field from pathways and mechanisms to regulation. Advice for young students; hot fields.


About the Interviewer

Leon B. Gortler

Leon Gortler is a professor of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He holds AB and MS degrees from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Harvard University where he worked with Paul Bartlett. He has long been interested in the history of chemistry, in particular the development of physical organic chemistry, and has conducted over fifty oral and videotaped interviews with major American chemists.