Monday, January 7, 2013

Notable Women in Science: Historical Biochemists

by Adrienne M. Roehrich, Chemistry Editor 

Welcome to another installment of Notable Women in Science! This on-going series highlights women who paved, and are currently paving, the way in science. If you have a favorite woman in science, check out our  past posts to see if she has already been highlighted. Or she may be yet to appear. Tweet us @DoubleXSci with your favorite woman scientist you would like to see in this series.

The four women highlighted today are biochemists who studied the chemical processes in living organisms and were part of the frontier of their field.

Sofia Simmonds was a scholar, researcher, author, professor, and administrator (1917-2007). She earned her B.A. in chemistry from Barnard College at Columbia University in 1938 and her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cornell in 1942. After a few years as a postdoctoral Research Associate at Cornell, she took an instructor position at Yale University’s School of Medicine in 1945 and rose through the professorial ranks. She also served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry in the School of Medicine at Yale University from 1975-1988 moving to Dean of Undergraduate Studies in the School of Medicine at Yale from 1988-1991. After her retirement, she remained active at Yale University. Dr. Simmonds was the American Chemical Society’s Garvan Medal recipient in 1969.

Dr. Simmonds married Joseph S. Fruton in 1936. Dr. Fruton also worked at Yale, and it is said he was exceptional in his encouragement of female students. Dr. Simmonds’ research focused on the study of amino acid metabolism of bacteria. In 1953, the couple co-authored a textbook that educated a generation in biochemistry. The two died within 2 days of each other in 2007.

Florence B. Seibert, by Smithsonian Institute
Florence B. Seibert, Pebbles on the Hill of a Scientist. (1897-1991) She earned her A.B. from Goucher college in 1918 and her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1923. She had named Fellowships for the duration of her graduate program. Her early work was done at the Sprague Memorial Institute, then she moved through the professorial ranks at the Henry Phipps Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned many, many awards during her research time, including the Trudeau Medal from National Tuberculosis Association, LL.D. (honorary doctorate) from Goucher College, D.Sc. from the University of Pennsylvania, the Garvan Medal, and the John Elliot Memorial Award. 

Dr. Seibert wrote an autobiography, Pebbles on the Hill of a Scientist, to describe to the public what she had achieved as a scientist and how she had done it, as well as to encourage youth to become scientists. She suffered from severe illness throughout her life, and although it did limit her in some ways, it also spurred her interest in biological science. She was also very close to her sister, who assisted her through many years. Her graduate and postdoctoral work determining infections caused by bacterial contamination and creating a new method of distillation improved the safety of intravenous feeding. She then spent 35 years working on tuberculosis, along the way inventing the first reliable test to diagnose the disease. Dr. Seibert broke the stereotype of “scientist” by being one of two women in her field of tuberculosis research presenting at conferences and because of her small physical stature. 

Mary Locke Petermann was a pioneer in cellular chemistry (1908-1975). She earned her A.B. in chemistry from Smith College in 1929 and her Ph.D. in physiological chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1939. She spent six years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin, then a year as a research chemist at Memorial Hospital in New York before becoming a Finney-Howell Foundation Fellow at the Sloan-Kettering Institute, a place she spent her the remaining of her working career until she died. She was the first woman to achieve full member status in 1963 at the Institute, and was the only woman working there for many years. She also was an associate professor at Cornell University during the same time and became the first woman to earn full professor there in 1966. Some of her awards include the Sloan Award in Cancer Research (1963), the Garven Medal (1966), and a D.Sc. from Smith College (1966).

Dr. Petermann’s interest in the sciences began in high school with mathematics. Even though her high-school advisor discouraged her from becoming a mathematician, she pursued a chemistry degree. She also read humanities books to keep up in conversations with her friends who were humanities majors. While working in science, Dr. Petermann encountered much resistance from her male peers, including much lower pay and enduring derogative remarks, such as being “difficult to work with.” She is best known for her work isolating and characterizing animal ribosomes, which were called “Petermann’s particles” until 1958. This work contributed to the Nobel Prize that George Palade won in 1974. In her own research group, she made a special effort to hire women.

Gertrude Perlmann studied protein chemistry (1912-1974). She earned her D.Sc. in chemistry and physics from the German University of Prague in 1936. Born in Liberec when it was a part of Austria (it is now part of the Czech Republic), Perlmann left her homeland in 1937 after the German invasion to work in Denmark, then moving to the U.S.A. in 1939 to work at Harvard Medical School as a physical chemist. In 1945, she began her career at Rockefeller Institute, spending nearly 30 years there but achieving the rank of full professor only in 1974. She received the Garvan Medal in 1965.

Dr. Perlmann’s scientific focus was protein chemistry. She studied the structure of proteins in body fluids and was one of the first to understand the nature of phosphoproteins. Some of her focus was on the human digestive protein pepsin and its conversion from pepsinogen. She determined the sequence of the segment of pepsinogen that is removed from the protein when it changes to pepsin. Despite her years of work, it is very difficult to find any information on Gertrude Erika Perlmann.

The Garvan Medal is an award from the American Chemical Society to recognize distinguished service to chemistry by women chemists.

The Trudeau Medal from the National Tuberculosis Association is given to an individual with lifelong major contributions to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of lung disease through leadership in research, education, or clinical care. 

The John Elliott Memorial Award recognizes an individual who has given outstanding service to AABB by demonstrating a willingness to lend expertise to the association through work on committees, the AABB Board of Directors, and other areas.

Much of the information for this article came from Notable women in the physical sciences: a biographical dictionary by Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara Smith Shearer.

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