Martha Chase


If you hear “Hershey” and think “Chase,” not “chocolate,” you might be a scientist. My hope is that, after reading this article, you hear “Hershey” and think “Martha Chase!” You might have learned about the “Hershey-Chase experiment” in a biology class (the elegant experiment that showed that genetic information is stored in nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), not protein), but did you know that Chase was a woman? That she performed this revolutionary experiment while “just” a research assistant? That Hershey received the Nobel Prize for the work and didn’t even mention her in his acceptance speech?

Martha Cowles Chase was born on November 30, 1927 in Cleveland, Ohio. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in 1950, she went to work as a research assistant for Alfred Hershey at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). It was here, in 1952, that Chase and Hershey performed their groundbreaking “blender experiment.” Briefly, they labeled DNA and protein and saw that DNA, not protein, was transmitted from a bacteria-infecting virus (phage) into bacteria during infection. This showed that the DNA was the source of the genetic instructions for making more virus particles. You can learn more about the experiment in this companion piece from The Bumbling Biochemist.

Martha resigned from CSHL in 1953 and went to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Rochester, returning every summer in the 1950’s for CSHL’s famous “Phage Group” meetings. After almost a decade working as a research assistant, she decided to return to school. She moved to California and begin doctoral studies in microbiology at the University of Southern California, receiving a PhD in 1964. A series of setbacks ended her scientific career, and she moved back to Ohio after graduating to live with family. The last decades of her life were marred by a form of dementia affecting her short-term memory. She died of pneumonia in 2003.

The Hershey-Chase experiment won Hershey the Nobel Prize in 1969 (he shared it with Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück "for their discoveries concerning the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of viruses." Martha Chase was not included, and Hershey didn’t even acknowledge her contributions in his acceptance speech. Maybe if Chase had gotten more credit during her lifetime, we would have more information preserved about her. As it stands, it is incredibly difficult to find information about her. Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't even have an article about her. If you search for her it takes you to her being referenced on Hershey’s page.  

There is little surviving information about the level of “intellectual contribution” Chase played in the experiment, but, given that she was listed as a co-author on the results paper (which was not common practice for research assistants unless they contribute substantially), she is believed to have played a key role throughout the experiment’s design, execution, and interpretation. Some denigrate research assistants and technicians as merely “sets of hands,” but these workers aren’t just manual labor, they are scientists, and when they make significant contributions, they deserve credit. So, this WiSE Wednesday, we want to not only honor Martha Chase, but also all the other underappreciated research assistants and technicians who help make science possible! Thank you for your work!