Skip to content ↓

Professor Emerita Mary-Lou Pardue, pioneering cellular and molecular biologist, dies at 90

Known for her rigorous approach to science and her influential research, Pardue paved the way for women in science at MIT and beyond.
Watch Video
Press Inquiries

Press Contact:

Lillian Eden
Phone: 617-459-6409
MIT Department of Biology
Mary-Lou Pardue, wearing a red academic robe, poses for a photo in front of a grassy MIT courtyard
Mary-Lou Pardue spent her career studying the fruit fly chromosome to better understand chromosome replication, cell division, and related cellular structures.
Photo: Linda Earle

Professor Emerita Mary-Lou Pardue, an influential faculty member in the MIT Department of Biology, died on June 1. She was 90.

Early in her career, Pardue developed a technique called in situ hybridization with her PhD advisor, Joseph Gall, which allows researchers to localize genes on chromosomes. This led to many discoveries, including critical advancements in developmental biology, our understanding of embryonic development, and the structure of chromosomes. She also studied the remarkably complex way organisms respond to stress, such as heat shock, and discovered how telomeres, the ends of chromosomes, in fruit flies differ from those of other eukaryotic organisms during cell division.

“The reason she was a professor at MIT, and why she was doing research, was first and foremost because she wanted to answer questions and make discoveries,” says longtime colleague and Professor Emerita Terry Orr-Weaver. “She had her feet cemented in a love of biology.”

In 1983, Pardue was the first woman in the School of Science at MIT to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. She chaired the Section of Genetics from 1991 to 1994 and served as a council member from 1995 to 1998. Among other honors, she was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she served as a council member, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also served on numerous editorial boards and review panels, and as the vice president, president, and chair of the Genetics Society of America and president of the American Society for Cell Biology.

In the 1990s, Pardue was also one of 16 senior women on MIT’s science faculty who co-signed a letter to the dean of science claiming bias against women scientists at the Institute at the time. As a result of this letter and a subsequent study of conditions for women at the Institute, MIT in 1999 publicly admitted to having discriminated against its female faculty, and made plans to rectify the problem — a process that ultimately served as a model for academic institutions around the nation. 

Her graduate students and postdocs included Alan Spradling, Matthew Scott, Tom Cech, Paul Lasko, and Joan Ruderman.

Video thumbnail Play video
A Conversation with Mary-Lou Pardue
Video: Department of Biology

In the minority

Pardue was born on Sept. 15, 1933, in Lexington, Kentucky. She received a BS in biology from the College of William and Mary in 1955, and she earned an MS in radiation biology from the University of Tennessee in 1959. In 1970, she received a PhD in biology for her work with Gall at Yale University.

Pardue’s career was inextricably linked to the slowly rising number of women with advanced degrees in science. During her early years as a graduate student at Yale, there were a few women with PhDs — but none held faculty positions. Indeed, Pardue assumed she would spend her career as a senior scientist working in someone else’s lab, rather than running her own.

Pardue was an avid hiker and loved to travel and spend time outdoors. She scaled peaks from the White Mountains to the Himalayas and pursued postdoctoral work in Europe at the University of Edinburgh. She was delighted to receive invitations to give faculty search seminars for the opportunity to travel to institutions across the United States — including an invitation to visit MIT.

MIT had initially rejected her job application, although the department quickly realized it had erred in missing the opportunity to recruit the talented Pardue. In the end, she spent more than 30 years as a professor in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

When Pardue joined, the biology department had two female faculty members, Lisa Steiner and Annamaria Torriani-Gorini — more women than at any other academic institution Pardue had interviewed. Pardue became an associate professor of biology in 1972, a professor in 1980, and the Boris Magasanik Professor of Biology in 1995.

“The person who made a difference”

Pardue was known for her rigorous approach to science as well as her bright smile and support of others.

When Graham Walker, the American Cancer Society and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor, joined the department in 1976, he recalled an event for meeting graduate students at which he was repeatedly mistaken for a graduate student himself. Pardue parked herself by his side to bear the task of introducing the newest faculty member.

“Mary-Lou had an art for taking care of people,” Walker says. “She was a wonderful colleague and a close friend.”

As a young faculty member, Troy Littleton — now a professor of biology, the Menicon Professor of Neuroscience, and investigator at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory — had his first experience teaching with Pardue for an undergraduate project lab course.

“Observing how Mary-Lou was able to get the students excited about basic research was instrumental in shaping my teaching skills,” Littleton says. “Her passion for discovery was infectious, and the students loved working on basic research questions under her guidance.”

She was also a mentor for fellow women joining the department, including E.C. Whitehead Professor of Biology and HHMI investigator Tania A. Baker, who joined the department in 1992, and Orr-Weaver, the first female faculty member to join the Whitehead Institute in 1987.

“She was seriously respected as a woman scientist — as a scientist,” recalls Nancy Hopkins, the Amgen Professor of Biology Emerita. “For women of our generation, there were no role models ahead of us, and so to see that somebody could do it, and have that kind of respect, was really inspiring.”

Hopkins first encountered Pardue’s work on in situ hybridization as a graduate student. Although it wasn’t Hopkins’s field, she remembers being struck by the implications — a leap in science that today could be compared to the discoveries that are possible because of the applications of gene-editing CRISPR technology.

“The questions were very big, but the technology was small,” Hopkins says. “That you could actually do these kinds of things was kind of a miracle.”

Pardue was the person who called to give Hopkins the news that she had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. They hadn’t worked together to that point, but Hopkins felt like Pardue had been looking out for her, and was very excited on her behalf.

Later, though, Hopkins was initially hesitant to reach out to Pardue to discuss the discrimination Hopkins had experienced as a faculty member at MIT; Pardue seemed so successful that surely her gender had not held her back. Hopkins found that women, in general, didn’t discuss the ways they had been undervalued; it was humiliating to admit to being treated unfairly.

Hopkins drafted a letter about the systemic and invisible discrimination she had experienced — but Hopkins, ever the scientist, needed a reviewer.

At a table in the corner of Rebecca’s Café, a now-defunct eatery, Pardue read the letter — and declared she’d like to sign it and take it to the dean of the School of Science.

“I knew the world had changed in that instant,” Hopkins says. “She’s the person who made the difference. She changed my life, and changed, in the end, MIT.”

MIT and the status of women

It was only when some of the tenured women faculty of the School of Science all came together that they discovered their experiences were similar. Hopkins, Pardue, Orr-Weaver, Steiner, Susan Carey, Sylvia Ceyer, Sallie “Penny” Chisholm, Suzanne Corkin, Mildred Dresselhaus, Ann Graybiel, Ruth Lehmann, Marcia McNutt, Molly Potter, Paula Malanotte-Rizzoli, Leigh Royden, and Joanne Stubbe ultimately signed a letter to Robert Birgeneau, then the dean of science.

Their efforts led to a Committee on the Status of Women Faculty in 1995, the report for which was made public in 1999. The report documented pervasive bias against women across the School of Science. In response, MIT ultimately worked to improve the working conditions of women scientists across the Institute. These efforts reverberated at academic institutions across the country.

Walker notes that creating real change requires a monumental effort of political and societal pressure — but it also requires outstanding individuals whose work surpasses the barriers holding them back.

“When Mary-Lou came to MIT, there weren’t many cracks in the glass ceiling,” he says. “I think she, in many ways, was a leader in helping to change the status of women in science by just being who she was.”

Later years

Kerry Kelley, now a research laboratory operations manager in the Yilmaz Lab at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, joined Pardue as a technical lab assistant in 2008, Kelley’s first job at MIT. Pardue, throughout her career, was committed to hands-on work, preparing her own slides whenever possible.

“One of the biggest things I learned from her was mistakes aren’t always mistakes. If you do an experiment, and it doesn’t turn out the way you had hoped, there’s something there that you can learn from,” Kelley says. She recalls a frequent refrain with a smile: “‘It’s research. What do you do? Re-search.’”

Their birthdays were on consecutive days in September; Pardue would mark the occasion for both at Legal Seafoods in Kendall Square with bluefish, white wine, and lab members and collaborators including Kelley, Karen Traverse, and the late Paul Gregory DeBaryshe.

In the years before her death, Pardue resided at Youville House Assisted Living in Cambridge, where Kelley would often visit.

“I was sad to hear of the passing of Mary-Lou, whose seminal work expanded our understanding of chromosome structure and cellular responses to environmental stresses over more than three decades at MIT. Mary-Lou was an exceptional person who was known as a gracious mentor and a valued teacher and colleague,” says Amy Keating, head of the Department of Biology, the Jay A. Stein (1968) Professor of Biology, and professor of biological engineering. “She was kind to everyone, and she is missed by our faculty and staff. Women at MIT and beyond, including me, owe a huge debt to Mary-Lou, Nancy Hopkins, and their colleagues who so profoundly advanced opportunities for women in science.”

She is survived by a niece and nephew, Sarah Gibson and Todd Pardue.

Press Mentions

The Boston Globe

Prof. Emerita Mary-Lou Pardue, a cellular and molecular biologist whose work “formed the foundation for key advancements and discoveries in understanding the structure of chromosomes,” has died at age 90, reports Bryan Marquard for The Boston Globe. Pardue “was a role model of what women in science can be at a time when there weren’t a lot of those, and a trailblazer as a woman,” emphasizes Ky Lowenhaupt, manager of the Biophysical Instrumentation Facility at MIT, “but also a trailblazer as a scientist who didn’t do things along the path that other people took.”

Related Links

Related Topics

Related Articles

More MIT News