Article: The Dominican Nun Who Helped Discover DNA

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Sister Miriam: The Dominican nun who helped discover DNA

The Michigan-based nun was also a prominent cancer researcher, educator, and lecturer.

by Jean Elizabeth Seah

The discovery of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, was a groundbreaking step in understanding the building blocks of all living creatures. DNA is a molecule in each cell that bears the genetic instructions for the development and reproduction of living organisms, including viruses.

The credit for the discovery of the DNA double helix has gone to American biologist James Watson, English physicist Francis Crick and New Zealand biologist Maurice Wilkins, but they would not have won their 1962 Nobel Prize without the work of several scientists before them, including Wilkins’ colleague Rosalind Franklin and Dominican Sister Miriam Michael Stimson.

Sister Miriam (December 24, 1913 – June 17, 2002) was an Adrian Dominican and a professor of chemistry at Siena Heights University, Adrian, Michigan. Her obituary notes:

“Her early success in chemistry, working on early research examining cells, led to an invitation to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris. She was the second woman to lecture there; the first was Marie Curie. She later received international recognition for her early work with the spectroscope, a tool used for analyzing chemicals, and wrote manuals for using the instrument.”

Beyond that, Sister Miriam worked on wound-healing hormones, helping to create Preparation H. She established a research laboratory at Siena Heights in 1939, where she researched cancer for more than 30 years. Known at Siena as “M2,”Sister Miriam introduced undergraduate research and an addiction counseling program.

Arguably, her most significant contribution in cancer research was her solution that unlocked the shape of DNA nucleobases.

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Sister Miriam: The Dominican nun who helped discover DNA