Scholar examines legacy of University’s first female biology professor
Speaking to the Brandeis community at the Women’s Studies Research Center, scholar Pnina Abir-Am described the legacy of former Prof. Carolyn Cohen (BIOL). Abir-Am is widely published on the history of women and gender in science, the history of molecular biology and the history of public memory, according to the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center website. Cohen was the University’s first female biology professor and served as a spokeswoman and mentor for women in science.
Cohen’s published works were sorted by Brandeis Archivist Margaret McNeal, and they remain in Brandeis Special Collections. Abir-Am herself played a role in the Archives’ decisions.
Cohen joined the Brandeis faculty in 1972 after graduating with her undergraduate degree from Bryn Mawr College in 1950 and completing her doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1954. She came to Brandeis as part of a collaborative team of scientists including former Prof. Don Casper (PHYS) and Prof. Susan Lowey (BCHM).
Abir-Am highlighted the obstacles that Cohen overcame before she began teaching at Brandeis. For example, Cohen faced anti-Semitism growing up. However, she refused to change her last name, although other members of her family did. Abir-Am quoted Cohen’s statement in 2011 that, by moving from 92nd Street to 110th and Broadway, “I was relieved that I could now avoid the occasional packs of young bullies who would swoop down on my friends and me from Amsterdam Avenue to harass [me] with anti-Semitic epithets.”
A more positive force in Cohen’s life was that she was, as Abir-Am put it, of “same-sex orientation.” Abir-Am described how being “SSO” was a positive force for women in science in the 1950s through the 1970s. At the time, she said, women would be seen as a sexual target for men in science. By being SSO, Cohen was able to be seen and treated as a colleague to the male scientists. In addition, she saw herself as a scientist who would not let her career be negatively affected by the constraints often imposed by marriage, such as “limited geographical mobility or prioritizing child rearing,” per Abir-Am’s powerpoint.
Abir-Am also discussed the struggles that Cohen faced at MIT. In 1957, after she received her doctorate and became a research assistant at MIT, Cohen was stuck at a “plateau” with the other women staff that she could not ascend beyond, according to Abir-Am. The lecturer highlighted one of Cohen’s quotes: “I wanted to find a place where I would be free to carry out research and where no one would tell me what to do.”
After leaving MIT, Cohen spent 13 years at the Jimmy Fund Lab at Harvard Medical School, and it was this position that led to her being hired at Brandeis, according to Abir-Am. As a part of the Jimmy Fund, she persuaded physicist Don Casper to leave Yale University and collaborate with her and biochemist Susan Lowey, also of Yale. Cohen, Casper and Lowey, as well as other visiting scientists, established a reputation for themselves as a “synergetic” team.
Although the “commune” of Cohen, Casper and Lowey had letters of recommendation from all over the world and from Nobel laureates, they had a hard time being hired as a group, Abir-Am said. Harvard was reluctant to hire a commune with the two women and was only willing to hire Casper, the team’s male member. However, the three wanted to stay together.
Eventually Brandeis Trustee Dr. Sidney Farber recognized the trio as an opportunity for the University. In 1972, the Rosenstiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center’s new director, Harlyn Halvorson, approved hiring the commune as a unit to do research in three different departments: Cohen in Biology, Lowy in Biochemistry and Casper in Physics.
According to a Science at Brandeis article, Cohen’s scientific work contributed to the understanding of the structure, assembly and dynamics of muscle proteins. Through her career, Cohen interacted with many notable scientists in molecular biology, Abir-Am said. Cohen exposed a mistake in the work of Nobel laureate in Chemistry Linus Pauling — “great men sometimes make great mistakes,” Cohen said of the discovery. She also stood up to Francis Crick, who bullied Cohen on the subject of fibrous proteins, according to Abir-Am. Cohen argued that there are three levels of organization of fibrous proteins: the monomer, the aggregate and the covalently cross-linked polymer. In asserting this, she stood up to Crick, one of the field’s top theoreticians, Abir-Am continued.
Abir-Am shared a quote from Cohen regarding the conflict: “I can certainly attest to how vigorously he tried to bully me in my presentation about fibrous proteins, but I held my own, and managed, I believe, to teach him something.”
Abir-Am classified Cohen’s interaction with scientist Rosalind Franklin as a missed opportunity, as the first time Cohen and Franklin were together was at a lunch with Franklin and her colleagues at Birkbeck/University College-London. Cohen only asked about trivial life events, rather than her scientific work. The second event that Abir-Am classified as a missed opportunity was when Andrew St. Gyorgyl, Cohen’s collaborator, showed Franklin Cohen’s X-ray photos. Franklin liked them and invited Cohen to discuss them with her, but Cohen turned the invitation down because she resented having been denied access to Franklin’s camera after the Birkbeck lunch. Franklin passed away shortly after from cancer, and according to Abir-Am, Cohen regretted not meeting with Franklin for the rest of her life.
Cohen was also a spokeswoman for women in science, organizing a Symposium on Women in Science at the University in 1985 and 1986. She also served as a mentor to those outside the scientific community. Abir-Am gave the example of Cohen supporting Peter Vibert’s choice to turn away from a career in science to become a minister. According to the same Science at Brandeis article, Vibert joined Cohen’s “muscle structure group” at the Jimmy Fund in 1973, and moved with the group to their new Structural Biology Laboratory in the Rosenstiel Center later that year. On top of her great scientific achievements, she leaves mentorship as part of her legacy, Abir-Am said.