November 12, 2009

Prof. Mildred Cohn (1913 - 2009)

"our band could be your life / real names be proof "

Prof. Mildred Cohn (1913 - 2009) was my scientific grandmother, twice over.

We speak of the trainees of scientists as their scientific progeny. Mildred (please forgive the familiar tone) trained Prof. John. S. Leigh, Jr. (1939 - 2008), who was my graduate supervisor, and Dr. Alan C. McLaughlin, who was one of my post-graduate research supervisors. So, because I am the trainee of two of her trainees, Mildred was my grandparent, twice over.

"Non-invasive biochemistry" is a good description of what we can do today using magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study metabolism and metabolic control without cutting into people to take biopsy specimens. Much of what we take for granted in this field is based on Mildred's ground-breaking work. I, and many of my colleagues, were delighted to see that she merited an obituary in the New York Times.

Something that was not in that obituary is a story that I once heard Mildred tell about herself; her late husband, physicist Prof. Henry Primakoff (1914 - 1983); and our colleague and then Director of the Johnson Research Foundation, Prof. Britton Chance (I'm transcribing here from memory, so please take the quote marks loosely):
"There were three students who were close friends. One night they were talking, and they took up the question of what is the most important thing in life.

I said the most important thing in life was science: The opportunity to ask questions, and answer them, and discover new knowledge, and make possible improvements in people's lives.

Brit said that was very nice, and those were noble goals, but you couldn't actually achieve them unless you had money, and that was why the most important thing in life was money.

And the other friend? He laughed, and said that we were both wrong, and that the most important thing in life was sex.

So I married him."

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