Mary Letitia Caldwell
Born in Bogota, Colombia to American parents, Dr. Mary Letitia Caldwell was supported by her family in her education and career pursuits, even if these pursuits went against the norms of the time.
Attending Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio Caldwell obtained her bachelors of science degree in 1913 and was hired by the school the next year as an instructor, then promoted to full professor. Knowing her dreams would require more education she left Western and enrolled at Columbia University in New York to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in organic chemistry.
Columbia recognized her talents and hired her as a member of the faculty after she graduated in 1921 during an era where it was almost unheard of for women to hold that kind of position outside of teaching at a women’s college.
Not letting that bog her down, she rose through the ranks to full professorship in 1948 making her the only female senior member of the chemistry faculty of the school. Caldwell taught full time as well as developing a strong research program in nutrition and biochemistry with particular interest in the amylase family of enzymes.
These macromolecules act as catalysts dramatically speeding up the rate of chemical reactions that occur in biological systems and are necessary for the function of the human body. In general amylase enzymes break down starch into sugars, Caldwell’s work focused on pancreatic amylase that is found in the mammalian pancreas.
During her research she found the purity of commercially available enzymes to be unsatisfactory and instead of settling for these subpar samples she developed methods for producing pure crystalline amylase. Her methodology was able to be used to create other enzymes and in laboratories in the U.S. and Europe as a general purification procedure for enzyme production and by isolating a pure enzyme she was able to show for the first time that amylases were proteins.
A year after retiring in 1959 she was the recipient of the Garvan Medal by the American Chemical Society-an award given to a woman chemist for outstanding achievement.
Written by Angela Goad