Barbara Low, Trailblazing Woman in X-Ray Crystallography, Dies

The former Columbia University professor’s early work helped illuminate the structure of penicillin, allowing chemists to make variants and broaden the scope of antibiotic treatments.

Mar 15, 2019
Carolyn Wilke
Barbara Low, circa 1960
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY VAGELOS COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS AND SURGEONS

Barbara Low, a pioneering scientist who used X-ray crystallography to reveal the shape of molecules including the antibiotic penicillin, died on January 10 at the age of 98, according to a tribute from Columbia University Irving Medical Center. 

Low was an emeritus professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she taught for almost 60 years starting in 1956. She retired in 1990, but lectured at Columbia until 2013, according to an obituary in The New York Times.

Low was born in northwestern England in 1920 and earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Oxford’s Sommerville College in 1943, according to the Times. For her graduate studies at Oxford, she worked under the tutelage of Dorothy Hodgkin, a future Nobel laureate. Hodgkin trained Low in X-ray crystallography and during World War II the pair figured out penicillin’s molecular structure. 

“It was a huge undertaking at that time, and Low and Hodgkin pushed the technology of the day to new limits,” says Columbia University structural biologist Wayne Hendrickson in the Columbia article.

With penicillin’s shape in hand, chemists could tweak the drug to make new derivatives and eventually produce more compounds that would broaden the reach of antibiotics in treating infections, according to the Columbia tribute. 

After Oxford, Low emigrated to the US, becoming a citizen in 1956, according to the Times. She worked as a research assistant to Linus Pauling at Caltech and later worked with Edwin Cohn at Harvard University, where she became an assistant professor of biophysical chemistry. There, in 1952, Low discovered a protein conformation called the pi helix. 

“Originally it was thought to occur only rarely in proteins, but it is now known as a quite commonplace feature within conventional alpha helices,” says Hendrickson. “It’s something that Linus Pauling, with whom she’d worked earlier, had missed in his famous discovery of the alpha helix.”

At Columbia University, Low’s lab continued to probe the structure of molecules, including that of insulin, and branched out into studying neurotoxins. 

Beyond her research accomplishments, Low is remembered at Columbia for championing diversity as an advocate for women and a member of the university’s affirmative action committee. “She was leading a charge that really improved the situation for women in science, and she suffered a lot of bruises for it,” says Philip Bourne, a former postdoc of Low and now a professor at the University of Virginia, in the Columbia memorial.

Low is not survived by any in her immediate family, according to the Times.