Dr. Joyce Kaufman Broke Ground in Science, Gender


Dr. Joyce Kaufman (née Jacobson), a most distinguished member of modern science’s elite, succumbed to congestive heart failure Aug. 26. Kaufman spent the vast majority of her 87 years in Baltimore and left an indelible mark during her  extensive time at Johns Hopkins as well as in the global scientific community at large.

“She just forged ahead,” lifelong friend and colleague Dr. Ruth Aranow said of Kaufman’s unflappable vigor that would not be squelched by health or systemic gender constraints.

Despite the fact that at the young age of 8, she was invited to attend a Johns Hopkins summer course for children gifted in science and math, Kaufman was denied math her senior year at Forest Park High School because “it was not fitting for girls to do so,” as daughter Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman  recounted during her eulogy given on Aug. 28.

A “child prodigy,” according to Aranow’s own eulogy, Kaufman skipped a grade in elementary school and graduated from accelerated junior high school No. 49  before moving onto Forest Park.

When Kaufman was admitted as an  undergraduate to Johns Hopkins University in the spring of 1945, she was designated a “special student.” Women would not be granted “regular student” status at the prestigious institution until 1970. Of the eight women matriculated into Johns Hopkins with a concentration in science or engineering, Kaufman was one of only two who graduated.

Though she would later go on to produce groundbreaking work in scientific  endeavors ranging from rocket fuel to drug design to quantum physics to some of the earliest applications of computer technology in the field of chemistry, Kaufman did not receive her Phi Beta Kappa certification when she was presented with her bachelor’s degree in 1949. The award, which could not at the time be given to “special students,” was not bestowed upon Kaufman until she earned her Ph.D. from Hopkins in 1960.

Born in Bronx, N.Y., to Robert and Sarah Seldin Jacobson on June 21, 1929, Kaufman moved with her mother to Baltimore, where they would live with her maternal grandparents, subsequent to her parents’ separation in 1935.

Kaufman would come to age in a traditionally Jewish home, raised in part by her mother’s new husband, roofer and erstwhile halutz in Palestine, Abe Deutch. Married to Kaufman’s mother in 1940, Deutch doted upon Kaufman as a daughter of his own.

Before she was 10 years old, Kaufman knew she was destined to be a scientist, inspired by a Marie Curie biography and an enduring passion that consumed her after time spent at camp.

“Like me, my mother [wasn’t] so outdoorsy in terms of sports or hot weather,” Jan mused in her eulogy. “But she, unlike me, love[d] nature, and that was her favorite part of camp. She was very curious about how the world worked scientifically.”

Kaufman met her first husband, WWII veteran and engineering student Stanley Kaufman, while finishing her undergraduate studies at Hopkins. They married in 1948. Previous to the birth of their only child, Jan, in 1955, recent university grad Kaufman worked as a technical librarian and research chemist at Edgewood, Maryland’s Army Chemical Center.

Throughout this period, Kaufman took graduate courses every semester through the University of Maryland’s extension program. The long commute (which included a fair amount of necessary hitchhiking), school and work hours had a deleterious effect on the health of Kaufman, who  became quite ill and at one point diminished in weight to a frightening 98 pounds.

As an alternative, Kaufman rejoined her undergraduate professor, the esteemed Dr. Walter Koski, at Hopkins in 1952 in order to work in his lab throughout her pregnancy and an unhampered progression of graduate-level study that led her to taking courses in quantum physics each term.

“She told me she had morning sickness during her class,” Jan recalled in her  eulogy, adding that one of her mother’s professors was “terrified I would be born during the exam … But, I waited.”

Kaufman “did very well in class,” Jan  affirmed.

Upon earning her Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1960, Kaufman took on a role at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies at the Martin Marietta Company. She stayed for nine years, launching what would become an illustrious and internationally based career that included the co-founding of the Journal of Computational Chemistry, the publication of more than 300 papers, an associate professorship of plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins and “work in drug and cancer research [that] saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” according to her daughter’s eulogy.

Among her many awards and recognitions, including the 1973 Garvan Medical Award given by the American Chemical Society to distinguished women chemists, Kaufman  received an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1963 after a year spent as an exchange scientist at the renown academy in 1962. Kaufman was pronounced une dame chevalière of France in 1969.

“Her lore is that when we first lived in Paris, her research group went out to lunch every day and they told my mother she would get an honorary  degree if she drank her share of wine and didn’t speak any English at lunch,” Jan quipped in her eulogy.

“Just let me point out that to have a mother who worked on psychotropic drugs in 1969, need I say more? My friends thought I had a way cool mother. She even wore shorts in public.”

According to Aranow, whose own life path often crisscrossed her late friend’s and is now an academic adviser in the School of Arts & Sciences at Hopkins, the principle connection she had with Kaufman was their both being women in science at a time when such an accomplishment was rare.

Though Kaufman was a woman who “said it straight and took crap from no one,” in the words of her daughter, Aranow asserts that Kaufman and she thought little of their breaking of science’s glass ceiling at the time, being too engaged in their work to consider much else.

“Both of us didn’t think too much about it,” Aranow said. “We just did what we wanted to do.”

Kaufman’s work and life  became a major inspiration to other scientists and women, many of whom never met the innovator, as evidenced by the outpouring of letters Kaufman’s family has received since her passing.

Jan shattered similar glass ceilings when, in 1979, she  became one of the first female rabbis in the United States  and one of the first three  women to be inducted into the  Conservative rabbinate.

It was 25 years ago that Kaufman was struck down by a tragic stroke that left her  incapable of continuing her life’s work. Her colleague, mentor and friend Koski — “a brilliant man,” Jan said, who had been part of the Manhattan Project — would complete the last of Kaufman’s papers and remain an integral part of her life as second husband after she was divorced from Stanley in 1982.

Right to the end, Jan proudly declared as the conclusion to her rousing eulogy, Kaufman “did it her way.”

Kaufman was preceded in death by Koski five years ago and is survived by daughter Jan and Koski’s daughters Dr. Carol Lee Koski, Dr. Ann Boyle, Nancy Koski and Dr. Phyllis Meyer.


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