Mary Leticia Caldwell and Marie Maynard Daly

Marie Maynard Daly, who received her PhD in chemistry from Columbia in 1947, is considered the first Black woman in the U.S. to earn a PhD in chemistry. At Columbia, Daly was one of the 18 graduate students who completed their degrees under Prof. Mary Leticia Caldwell’s sponsorship. Caldwell herself was also a “first.” In 1927, she became the first woman Assistant Professor not just in Chemistry, but in any department at Columbia. Daly honored her mentor in a candid and moving biographical sketch in 1976.

Mary Leticia Caldwell. Scan 4833. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

In the University Archives’ Historical Biographical File for Mary Leticia Caldwell (Box 49, folder 4), there is a draft by Marie Maynard Daly of a biographical entry she was writing about Caldwell. Daly had reached out to Columbia to verify some facts. The final text appears in the American Chemists and Chemical Engineers published by the American Chemical Society in 1976. Daly’s biographical sketch manages to give a lot more than the facts about Caldwell’s life and career.

Mary Leticia Caldwell was born in 1890 in Bogotá, Colombia, the daughter of missionary parents. She attended high school in the US and graduated from Ohio’s Western College for Women in 1913. She remained at Western for four years as an instructor and later assistant professor before entering Columbia’s graduate program. She received her PhD and a fellowship in 1921. After multiple temporary appointments, Caldwell became an Assistant Professor in 1927, received tenure in 1943, and became Professor of Chemistry in 1948. Nutrition chemistry was then a relatively new field. Caldwell’s research on amylases or starch-splitting enzymes and the procedures she created quickly become industry standards. She retired from Columbia in 1959. A year later, she was awarded the American Chemical Society’s Garvan medal which recognizes distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists. She also received an honorary doctorate from Columbia in 1961. Caldwell died on July 1, 1972.

Chandler Hall, 1947. Photo by Manny Warman. Scan 5219. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

In her short article, Daly shares her personal recollections about the pioneering nutritional chemist who supervised her own dissertation. Right from the opening lines, Daly points out how colleagues referred to her mentor as “Miss Caldwell” since at the time “it was common for a woman to be addressed as ‘Miss’ even though she had earned a Ph.D. degree.” According to Daly, when it came to her students, Caldwell herself “scrupulously changed the ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr.’ to ‘Dr.’ immediately following a successful thesis defense.” In addition to her teaching and research, Daly states that Caldwell was “the secretary of the department.” She served  as the graduate student advisor and managed their financial arrangements. She was also in charge of assigning the department’s teaching assistants. Furthermore, Caldwell suffered from a degenerative muscular disability which would eventually require her to use a cane and then a wheelchair. Her laboratory was on the ninth floor of Chandler Hall and, at the time, the elevators in that building only reached up to the eighth floor. Daly recalls that “[t]he climb to the ninth floor became increasingly difficult.” Looking back, Daly is left only with questions: was that Caldwell’s choice, was there no other space, or was Caldwell too proud to request another space?

We are greatly indebted to Daly for capturing these insights about Caldwell and Columbia. If only we had such recollections about Daly herself. At the University Archives we are frequently asked about Daly and we refer researchers to her dissertation, her dissertation defense sheet, and her appointment record. (Daly taught Chemistry at the University Extension, now School of General Studies, in 1946-1947, and was an Associate in Biochemistry from 1955 to 1959.) Daly’s own Historical Biographical File (Box 73, folder 8) includes this article by Sibrina Nichelle Collins published in Undark. And, more recently, on Friday, May 19, 2023, the American Chemical Society declared Havemeyer Hall a National Historic Chemical Landmark in Daly’s name. To mark the event, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences posted this profile worthy of a most deserving alumna.