The story of discovering DNA is often told with a focus on familiar names like Watson and Crick. But did you know there was an equally pivotal contribution of a Catholic nun, Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, whose work in chemistry played a crucial role in unlocking the secrets of DNA?
Born Marian Emma Stimson on December 24, 1913, in Chicago, she grew up in a devout Catholic family and later joined the Adrian Dominican Sisters, adopting the name Miriam Michael.
Educated at Siena Heights College and Institutum Divi Thomae, Sister Miriam’s profound interest in science, particularly chemistry, led her to groundbreaking work. Her pioneering use of potassium bromide in infrared spectroscopy significantly advanced the study of DNA’s structure. This technique involved the creation of a nearly transparent pellet from DNA and potassium bromide.
Sister Miriam’s method proved superior to existing techniques and revealed crucial insights into DNA’s structure. Her findings challenged the then-prevailing models of DNA, which incorrectly positioned the nucleotide bases on the molecule’s exterior. Her research was integral to confirming the correct structure of DNA nucleotide bases and their placement within the DNA double helix, effectively turning the flawed models of her time inside out.
Beyond her scientific achievements, Sister Miriam was a trailblazer in academia. She was the second woman ever to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, following Marie Curie, and a revered educator at Siena Heights University. Sister Miriam said she saw her scientific work as “a means of discovering truth that would lead us closer to God.”
Despite her monumental contributions, Sister Miriam’s role in the discovery of DNA’s structure remains largely uncredited today. Her work, however, was crucial in the collective effort that led to this fundamental scientific breakthrough.
Her legacy is a testament to the intersection of faith and science, and a reminder of the often-overlooked contributors in our scientific history!