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Marcella O'Grady Boveri

Scholar of the month July 2020

* Oktober 7th, 1863 in Boston, Massachusetts                                               † Oktober 24th,1950 in Trenton, New Jersey

1885      Graduated with degree in Biology from MIT
1889      Started as lecturer at Vassar College
1893      Appointed professor at Vassar College
1896      Began research in Würzburg, Germany
1926      Returned to the United States
1927      Founded the science department at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut

For July’s Scholar of the Month, we are shining the spotlight on Marcella O’Grady. As the first woman to ever graduate with a concentration in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), O’Grady was also one of the first women to begin an academic career in biology.

Marcella O’Grady and Biology

After attending a public high school in Boston, Marcella O’Grady decided to pursue an academic career in the natural sciences. To this end, she enrolled in MIT and became the first woman at the institute to graduate with a concentration in biology. With help from her mentor Edmund Beecher Wilson, the scientist was hired for her first teaching position at the all-girls preparatory Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore in the fall of 1885, where she worked for two years before being awarded a graduate fellowship in biology at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia. It was at the renowned women’s college that she began to work towards her Ph.D. until 1889 after a teaching position at Vassar College opened up.

O’Grady accepted a teaching position at Vassar College in 1889, after which she became an assistant professor. She was promoted to full professor in 1893.

An American Heads to Würzburg

Marcella O’Grady was first introduced to Theodor Boveri, cell researcher and director of the Institute of Zoology in Würzburg, by her mentor Wlson, and it was under the tutelage of Boveri that O’Grady wanted to obtain her German doctorate. Thus, Marcella O’Grady left upstate New York to travel to Würzburg’s Julius-Maximilians-Universität, where only men were permitted to study. O’Grady did not let that stop her - in 1896 she was the first woman to be admitted to the University of Würzburg, albeit with the status of ‘guest auditor’ and only having been granted the exception because of her seven years as a biology professor in the United States. Despite this, she paved the way for the academic career of women in Würzburg.

While she was in Würzburg, she met the Nobel-prize winning physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, with whom she maintained a close friendship until her death.

Family Life & Research

On October 4, 1897, Marcella O’Grady married Theodor Boveri, unfortunately ending the American’s scientific career as German law would not allow married women to work in the public sector for another half-century. She published her dissertation titled “On Mitoses in Unilateral Chromosome Binding” (“Über Mitosen bei einseitiger Chromosomenbindung”) in Jena, but never defended it and thus never finished her doctorate.  Nevertheless, she continued to work with Boveri on his chromosome theories of cancer, supporting him considerably until his death in 1915.

On August 14th, 1900, Marcella gave birth to a daughter Margret Boveri, who would later become one of the most renowned journalists of the post-war period. Many letters and notes written by Margret reveal sight into the life of her godfather and patron W. C. Röntgen and vividly illustrate the close relationship between the two families.

Marcella O’Grady Boveri initially stayed in Germany after the death of her husband, who had been in poor health for quite some time, though she returned stateside in January 1926, feeling that in her home country, she was recognized as a scientist in her own right and not just as the widow of the great Boveri. At the age of 62, she supervised the creation of the science department at the Catholic Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, staying to teach until 1943.

Further Reading:

Albertus Magnus College https://www.albertus.edu/general-health-sciences/bs/ [Aufruf vom 03.07.2020]

Satzinger, Helga: Differenz und Vererbung: Geschlechterordnungen in der Genetik und Hormonforschung 1890 – 1950. Böhlau, 2009.

Wright, Margaret Robson: Marcella O'Grady Boveri: (1863 - 1950); her three careers in biology. Chicago, 1997.