Mary Letitia Caldwell

1890 December 18-Born

1913 A.B., Western College for Women, Oxford, OH

1913 Instructor, Western College for Women

1917 Assistant Professor, Western College for Women

1919 Master's Degree, Columbia University

1920 Ph.D., Columbia University, began to teach

1948-59 Professor, Columbia University

1959 Retired from Teaching

1960 Garvan Medal, American Chemical Society

1961 D.Sc., Columbia University

1972 July 1 - Death

It is encouraging to hear of women who triumph despite of traditional limitations set by society. Although women were not considered a part of Science, Mary Letitia Caldwell would ultimately become a College Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University and the recipient of the Garvan Medal. Mary Letitia Caldwell's story is inspiring and it enforces the ideal that through hard work and dedication, anyone can be honored for his or her work.

Academic influences in the Caldwell family were powerful. The five Caldwell children, whose father was a Colombian Presbyterian Minister, grew up to be scholars and educators. Although Caldwell lived in a time where it was odd to see women in Chemistry, Marie Curie had won two Nobel Prizes by the time Caldwell had completed High School. Women had begun to emerge in the field of Science.

Caldwell attended Western College for Women and graduated in 1913 with an A.B. The following year, she became an instructor at Western College for Women and in 1917, she became an Assistant Professor. In 1919, Caldwell received her Masters Degree at Colombia University and went on to complete her Ph.D. in 1921 where she remained teaching and would have become the first Professor in Chemistry at Colombia University from 1948-1959.

An interesting aspect of Caldwell was recalled by one of her former students, Mary M. Daly who wrote of Caldwell following her death. Daly remembered:

" . . . inspired her students with respect for technical excellence as well as fine scholarship. Her manners were rather formal; she rarely addressed her students by first names and scrupulously changed the "Miss" or "Mr." to "Dr." immediately following a successful thesis defense. Despite her formal manner, she conveyed a sense of concern for a student's personal welfare. She could summon a bright word of encouragement when the work was not progressing fast enough, often ending her comments with a philosophical "Well, child, that's research!"

Another aspect of Caldwell's character that was remembered was that although she had a progressive muscular disability, her 9th floor location at Chandler Hall (research facility) was not switched. In terms of family, Caldwell had no children, but she enjoyed the company of her nieces and nephews. After retirement, some of her favorite activities included gardening and bird watching.

Although Caldwell was confined to a wheelchair by 1960, the highest point of her life occurred when she became the recipient of the Garvan Medal. The Garvan Medal is awarded by the American Chemical Society. The Garvan Medal distinguishes women who have contributed service to the field of Chemistry. A majority of Caldwell's research dealt with amylase, a type of enzyme.

An enzyme is a chemical found in living things that makes reactions in life speed up or slow down. Enzymes are also responsible for breaking large polymers into smaller molecules. Caldwell spent a great deal of time trying to purify enzymes because she was not satisfied with commercially available enzyme materials.

The Enzyme Time Activity illustrates that when a pineapple is cooked, the enzyme (papain) that allows for proteins to break down is destroyed. Caldwell attempted to find a more pure sample of a pancreatic enzyme (amylase) taking into consideration that heat and acids could destroy enzymes. Because of her research, Caldwell was able to develop a method for isolating crystalline pancreatic enzymes that is used throughout America and European laboratories.

In developing a better way to purify pancreatic amylase, carbohydrates were more easily broken into sugar. Carbohydrates are made up of glucose that is bonded. During reactions, amylase allows the bonds to break making individual glucose molecules. Below is an illustration of Carbohydrates broken down by amylase enzyme to form Glucose. (simple sugar).

Although Mary Letitia Caldwell was born in a time where society did not have high academic expectations for women, she was able to contribute significantly to the field of Chemistry. With the power of knowledge, it is easy to see that anything can be accomplished. With accomplishments, success and acknowledgement are sure to follow.




The New York Times, Mary L. Caldwell of Columbia Dies July 3, 1972

Mary Letitia Caldwell by Marie M. Daly courtesy of Columbia University

Notable Women in the Physical Sciences A Biographical Dictionary edited by Benjamin F. Shearer and Barbara S. Shearer. Greenwood Press ©1997

Women in Chemistry and Physics a Biographical Sourcebook edited by Louise S. Grimstein, Rose K. Rose and Miriam H. Rafailovich. Greenwood Press ©1993


Patty Barbosa


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