WiSW: Martha Chase

Martha Chase was born in 1927 in Cleveland, Ohio. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1950. 

After graduating Martha Chase worked as a research assistant at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, under the direction of bacteriologist, geneticist, and Nobel Prize winner Alfred Hershey. In 1952, the pair completed the famous Hersey-Chase blender experiment. With this experiment they proved that genetic information is transmitted and stored by DNA, and not through protein. In the experiment they radioactively labelled the protein and/or nucleic acid of the bacteriophage T2, which is a virus that infects bacteria. Chase would then observe whether the protein or the nucleic acid would enter E Coli through infection. Chase observed that nucleic acids and not proteins were transferred. This resolved a longstanding controversy about how hereditary information was transferred and stored. Alfred Hershey was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this joint discovery in 1969. Because she was a woman, Martha Chase’s contributions were not officially recognized or even mentioned in Hershey’s acceptance speech.

In 1953, Chase left the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. She went on to work at the University of Rochester. Chase returned to CSHL every year throughout the fifties to partake in a meeting of biologists. During this time, Chase met and married fellow scientist Richard Epstein. They had no children and soon divorced. 

Martha chase began her doctoral studies in 1959 at the University of Southern California, where she earned her PhD in Microbiology in 1964. Throughout the sixties she suffered personal problems, and withdrew from her scientific career. Chase moved back to Ohio to be with her family. In the last decades of her life Martha Chase lost her short term memory from dementia. She died of pneumonia in 2003, at the age of 75. 

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