Mary Jane Osborn

Photo credit: ASBMB

Mary Jane Osborn (September 24, 1927 – January 17, 2019). Early this year, the biochemistry and microbiology communities mourned the loss of a prominent leader in research on lipopolysaccharides (bacterial endotoxins), Mary Jane Osborn. Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) are large molecules that are abundant in the outer membrane of some bacteria and contribute to the bacteria’s (sometimes lethal) toxicity. Osborn wanted to figure out how these molecules got made and how, once they were made, they got transported from their site of production (inside the cell) to their resting spot (jutting out of the outer membrane).

To work out the process, she used a combination of biochemistry, genetics, and electron microscopy. Key to her experiments was her development of a technique, which came to be known as the Osborn method, for separating the inner and outer membranes of Gram-negative bacteria. Her work helped lead to the development of new antibiotics.

Another of her major contributions was discovering how the anti-cancer drug methotrexate works, which she figured out while a graduate student at the University of Washington. After receiving her Ph.D., she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in microbiology fellowship at the New York University College of Medicine, then taught there and at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine before joining the University of Connecticut School of Medicine as professor in 1968, where she remained until her retirement in 2014. While there, she served as a professor of microbiology and of molecular biology and biophysics, and headed the University of Connecticut’s Department of Microbiology from 1980 to 2002.

She was the second woman to be elected ASBMB president (1981) and she also served as president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (1982). She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977, the National Academy of Sciences in 1978, and the American Academy of Microbiology in 1992. She was appointed to the National Science Board (governing body of the National Science Foundation) by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Osborn passed away January 17, 2019 at the age of 91 following complications after emergency surgery.

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