100th Birthday: Mildred Cohn

100th Birthday: Mildred Cohn

Author: ChemistryViews

Mildred Cohn was born on July 12, 1913, in New York City, USA, and died on Oktober 12, 2009, in Philadelphia, USA (see details of Cohn’s life). She received many awards for her fundamental research in the fields of biological and physical chemistry.

Mildred Cohn´s work focused on enzymatic reactions. With her strong interest in physics, she used newly emerging techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy (EPR), and mass spectrometry (MS) to reveal enzyme reaction mechanisms on the atomic scale. If suitable instruments were not available, Cohn built her own. Her research included metabolic studies, mechanisms, and kinetics of enzymatic reactions and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) – the universal energy carrier in cells. She was the first to distinguish the three phosphorous atoms of ATP with 31P NMR spectroscopy (pictured). She analyzed the effect of the divalent metal ions of Ca, Mg, and Zn on the spectrum and demonstrated that the metal ions bind to the β-and γ-phosphate groups of ATP, but not the α phosphate group.

Her research resulted in about 150 papers and she was the first woman on the editorial board of The Journal of Biological Chemistry. To honor the scientific success of this person, she was named in the National Women´s Hall of Fame – only one day before she died in October 2009.

Mildred Cohn acheived all of this inspite of facing prejudice early in her career. Professors discouraged her from graduating and after receiving her Ph.D. she could not find a job, because all notices were tendered for Christian men – putting two barriers of discrimination against a young Jewish woman. It took more than 21 years until she got an appointment at the University of Pennsylvenia, USA, where she finally could pursue her own scientific ideas.

Mildred Cohn is the answer to Guess the Chemist (19), which gave details about Cohn’s life.


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