Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”

Marian Elliott Koshland was born in New Haven, Connecticut. She grew up to become a giant in the field of immunology—an anomaly in those days: “She was a successful scientist at a time when that was not easy for women, she was the mother of five (with one son still at home, which was why she worked only part-time in those days), she was married to another successful scientist1,” writes Ruth Levy Guyer in a biographical memoir for the National Academy of Sciences (2007, p. 5). Immunology, too, was an anomaly: a newly budding field whose place in the world of science was still being hashed out. They found each other: it was a fortuitous pairing.

Elliott Koshland’s work on an oral cholera vaccine helped set the stage for the later oral polio vaccine. She was one of only several women to work on the Manhattan Project, studying radiation’s biological ravages. Her tenacity and her husband’s support saved her from leaving science when the department head who’d hired the pair of them rescinded the offer to her—for being a woman. Her husband believed she could remain a successful scientist by putting her creativity toward projects too high-risk for tenure-track faculty to take on. He was right: she bargained her services as a biology editor in exchange for a small lab and single technician and doggedly continued her science.

By the close of the 1960s, Elliott Koshland had contributed pioneering building blocks to what is today foundational in immunology: evidence of the structure of antigen receptors in immunological cells. She identified a component of antibodies in B cells—dubbed the J Chain—and demonstrated its contribution to B cell maturation. She must’ve witnessed so many advances in the availability of apparatus and technology to scientists through the years—and in the availability of science to women scientists too. Despite the early setbacks imposed by woman-unfriendly hiring practices, Elliott Koshland went on to chair the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at U. C. Berkeley and, in the year I was born, to head the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology Graduate Affairs Office there.

“Marian was funny,” Levy Guyer (2007) relates. When she prepared to leave a dinner party, donning her glasses, a “physicist said, ‘Marian, you look so much better without your glasses.’ And, without a moment’s hesitation, Marian said, ‘Keith, you look a lot better without my glasses too’” (p. 17). She was determined and keen, rational and efficient and unfailingly hard-working.

Relaying Elliott Koshland’s eldest daughter’s words, Levy Guyer writes: “‘My mother had a great influence on my life by her indomitable moral force. It was this force more than her capacity to juggle home and work that stays with me to this day. She conveyed that there were things to be tackled to improve the world and no time to waste in getting on with it. She demanded high quality but she was at heart a true egalitarian, believing everyone deserved a fair go and was capable of real achievement’” (2007, pp. 17-18).

On this day in 1997, Elliott Koshland was three days away from the end of her life. I was three years, eight months, and sixteen days old. Our livetimes overlapped only marginally, but a small spark of recognition alights as I read “New Haven, Connecticut,” when I learn she worked as an editor to stay in the sciences, when I discover she, too, felt profound nervousness before speaking to a crowd and was deeply committed to public education about science. I feel honored to have learned about Marian Elliott Koshland on this day in October, 2023.


1 That successful scientist, Daniel E. Koshland Jr., touchingly described marrying her as: “by far the most important thing I did in my life” (Levy Guyer, 2007, p. 8). 

Photo credit: Mr.TinMD (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED) on Flickr

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