1913 - 2009

Pioneer of nuclear magnetic resonance

Don’t you find amazing that we can look at the internal structures of our body (in a non-invasive way) using a magnetic field and radiofrequency? This is currently done with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), enabling the diagnosis of many diseases and body conditions.

Current MRI builds on top of Mildred Cohn’s research, who studied the structure of molecules using magnetic forces. Cohn contributed to the development of medical techniques and instruments, and her research aided depicting the structure of the adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a key molecule in the use and storage of energy by our cells.

Born in New York, Cohn pursued becoming a chemistry scientist despite those who tried to discourage her. She gained her doctorate in the team of Harold C. Urey., and, throughout her career, she conducted research with several Nobel Laureates. For example, Gerty and Carl Cori.

Seeking to pursue independent research, Mildred Cohn started a new field of research, which, in her own words, “turned out to be fairly successful”. Cohn started her radioactive isotope laboratory and was a pioneer in the use of electron spin and nuclear magnetic resonance to study metabolic processes and the behaviour of enzymes and other proteins in the body. Her research set basis for the current MRI and enriched the medical research at the molecular level.

Mildred Cohn was the first woman president of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the first woman to receive the National Medal of Science (U.S., 1982) in biological sciences for “pioneering the use of stable isotopic tracers and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy in the study of the mechanisms of enzymatic catalysis.”

She died in November 2009, with 96 years old.

Written by: Enriqueta Vallejo-Yagüe.