By: Henry North and Patrice L. Jackson-Ayotunde
The story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, three of many African American women working at NASA in a segregated section called the West Computers, are featured in the hit movie ”Hidden Figures.” The story of these three women, the brains behind space operations in the ‘60s, impressed numerous people simply because many significant contributions by minorities are left untold. This is also the fate of many African Americans in the pharmaceutical sciences. Here is the story of three African American women who made significant advancements to drug discovery.
Alice Augusta Ball, M.S., (1892–1916) was a pharmaceutical chemist with a largely untold story. Ball achieved several titles as the first person to do and/or to be extraordinary things. A native of Seattle, Washington, Ball graduated from the University of Washington (UW) with two degrees that included pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912 and pharmacy in 1914. While at UW, Ball and William Dehn, her pharmacy professor, co-authored a 10-page article in the renowned Journal of the American Chemical Society. She was the first African American and the first woman to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii (UH). She was also the first woman to teach chemistry at UH. Ball was the first chemist to extract active ingredients from chaulmoogra oil to treat Hansen disease (leprosy), which had afflicted the native Hawaiian community since the 1860s. On December 31, 1916, at the tender age of 24, Ball passed away. She did not have the opportunity to witness the fruits of her research and discovery. Her obituary appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin January 1, 1917, where she was remembered by students and faculty as “helpful, cheery, patient, yet optimistic.” Later in 1918, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that 78 patients of Kalihi Hospital were released by board of health examiners after being treated by chaulmoogra injections.
Marie Maynard Daly, Ph.D., (1921–2003) was the first African American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. She earned her doctorate from Columbia University and wrote a thesis entitled A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch. Daly was influenced by her father, Ivan C. Daly, to become a chemist. She graduated from the all-girls Hunter College High School in Queens, New York, before attending Queens College in Flushing, New York. There she completed her B.S. in chemistry in 1942, magna cum laude (elected to Phi Beta Kappa). Daly received a graduate fellowship from Queens College to attend New York University (NYU). She worked as a laboratory assistant at Queens College while studying at NYU for her master’s degree in chemistry, which she earned in 1943. She later went to Columbia University to work with Mary L. Caldwell on the discovery of how chemicals produced in the body contribute to food digestion.
Daly taught physical science at Howard University from 1947 to 1948 before starting her work with A. E. Mirsky at the Rockefeller Institute, where they studied the cell nucleus. In 1955, Daly began working in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University with Quentin B. Deming, M.D., studying the effects that aging, hypertension, and atherosclerosis had on the metabolism of the arterial wall. She continued this work as an assistant professor of biochemistry and of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, where she and Deming moved in 1960. She enjoyed teaching medical students and was dedicated to increasing the number of minority students enrolled in medical schools.
Jane Cooke Wright, M.D., (1919–2013) was born into a medical family. She received an art degree from Smith College in 1942 and a medical degree from the New York Medical College with honors in 1945. After completing her residencies at Bellevue and Harlem Hospital, she joined her father in research at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center in 1949. She later succeeded him as director when he died in 1952. Three years later she accepted a research appointment at New York University Bellevue Medical Center as Associate Professor of Surgical Research and Director of Cancer Research.
Wright’s research involved studying the effects of various drugs on tumors, and she was the first to identify methotrexate, one of the foundational chemotherapy drugs, as an effective tool against cancerous tumors. Her early work brought chemotherapy out of the realm of an untested, experimental hypothetical treatment, into the realm of tested, proven effective cancer therapeutics—thus literally saving millions of lives. Wright later pioneered combinatorial work in chemotherapeutics, focusing not simply on administering multiple drugs, but sequential and dosage variations to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and minimize side effects. She was successful in identifying treatments for both breast and skin cancer, developing a chemotherapy protocol that increased skin cancer patient lifespans up to ten years. She published more than 75 papers on cancer chemotherapeutics during her career.
These three women made great strides in advancing drug design and development during a time when the industry was dominated by males. Their research has made a lasting contribution to science in the study of Hansen disease (leprosy), aging, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and developing cancer chemotherapies.