Mary Amdur

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Many researchers talk about “living and breathing” science – this metaphor is particularly apt for this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Mary Amdur (1921-1998), who pioneered research on air pollution’s harmful effects on the lungs. In studying the chemical nature of smog, Amdur discovered that sulfur dioxide could react with particles released from industrial plants to form harmful molecules capable of damaging the lungs. Despite pushback from both industry and academia, she could not be intimidated into backing down.

Her initial work was carried out at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) with funding from the American Smelting and Refining Company (AS&R). AS&R was hoping to get evidence that the sulfuric acid released by their plants was harmless; not only did Amdur come to the opposite conclusion, but she also found that the AS&R’s main emission, sulfur dioxide was also hazardous. Executives and lawyers from AS&R and other industrial companies pressured her to delay publishing her work, but, despite being a young woman in a male-dominated field, Amdur refused to give in to the pressure. Her work got published, but it came at a price: the loss of her research assistant position.

Thankfully, another professor at HSPH recognized the importance of Amdur’s work and hired her to work in his lab; there she developed an animal model for studying air pollution’s effects that allowed her to perform further influential experiments. Nevertheless, thirty years of ground-breaking work wasn’t enough to gain her tenure, or even a position above “Associate Professor” at Harvard. Despite these personal injustices, it was a fight over the denial of tenure for a colleague that led Amdur to leave HSPH for MIT, where she worked for 12 years (in a non-faculty position) before starting a research group at New York University. At NYU, she reached her highest position, “Senior Research Scientist,” but still didn’t receive tenure. She retired in 1996 but continued to write and edit scientific papers. She passed away in 1998, but she still serves as an inspiration for many in the field and her story is a great example of how great scientists (especially women and minorities) are often denied access to the top rungs of the academic ladder.

Picture original publication: Casarett and Doull’s Toxicology The Basic Science Of Poisons