Marilyn Jacox, a Pioneer in Infrared Spectroscopy

Jun 01, 2014
Volume 29, Issue 6

Marilyn Jacox, PhD, was a pioneer in the infrared (IR) and electronic spectroscopies of free radicals and small molecular ions in matrix isolation. Before Jacox's recent passing, Ingeborg Iping Petterson had the pleasure of speaking with her about her career in spectroscopy. Jacox shared her personal story, reflections on her extensive career, and insight and advice for young scientists, especially women, who are just starting their careers.

Marilyn Jacox was born in 1929 in Utica, New York. Her father was a master baker, and her mother was a homemaker. Her parents possessed great intellectual ability but lacked the educational opportunities to become scientists themselves. Both came from single-parent homes with modest finances, and her father left school in the seventh grade to find a job.

Figure 1: Marilyn Jacox outside her home near Gaithersburg, Maryland, in April 2013.
Her parents supported her interest in school and getting good grades, and eventually her budding science career. "They played very different roles, but one of the big things was that I was accepted," said Jacox. "My parents' dream for me when I was small was that I would continue in music, get a respectable office job, marry, and raise a family. When I began to have a successful science career, my father was intensely proud of his little girl, and my mother just plain accepted me."

Jacox grew up in the Depression, a time when most women in the United States did not drive, and many did not even write checks. Those were tasks for the male head of a household. The three generally accepted professions for women then were teaching, nursing, and secretarial business positions. Jacox started out studying business in high school because she thought that would give her the best prospect for a future job. She concluded that the business practices that she learned in her mandatory "Introduction to Business," course and typing skills she learned served her well throughout her career.

Figure 2: Jacox looking at a photograph of herself from 1973, when she was working at the National Bureau of Standards.
She joked that her friends in school teased her that she only received good grades because she studied easy subjects. "But when I switched focus in my junior year and began doing college preparatory courses, my grades went up!" she recalled. She also remembered a young woman with whom she rode the bus, whose dream of studying chemistry inspired her to do the same. "I knew then that a college preparatory curriculum would help me."

Early Mentors

As a young child, Jacox was passionate about music. She took voice and piano lessons from several different music teachers, including various women living in her neighborhood. Then a family moved into a house down the block, and the man was a professional musician. "He became my music teacher for most of the remaining time during which I studied music, and that made an enormous difference in my progress," Jacox said. "I translated that into 'If a young woman is seeking an education in science, she should go get the best education and best teachers she can.'"

Her first scientific mentor, John C. Keller, her undergraduate supervisor from the Department of Chemistry at Utica College of Syracuse University, was indeed an excellent scientist. "In this world, it makes a lot of difference who your teachers are, and he was the best," she said. "I think this point is very important to pass along to young women who are highly motivated in science."

Oscar K. Rice from the University of North Carolina, with whom she worked after her graduate study at Cornell University, was another important mentor. "He was a wonderful person in every sense, a superb scientist yet very unassuming," she said. Jacox talked about many of her mentors in her autobiographical article, "On Walking in the Footsteps of Giants" (1).

Another important influence on Jacox's career was her long-time collaboration with Dolphus "Dick" Milligan, which began when Jacox became a Fellow at Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in Pittsburgh. The director of the Mellon Institute had a mandate to encourage new research, and she and Milligan were appointed at this opportune time. Although her first research studies were on the IR spectroscopy of molecular solids, soon she began to collaborate with Dick in his studies of free radicals.

Jacox felt that her work with Milligan played an important role in her professional development. "He had information and experimental ideas left over from his Berkeley thesis, and he wanted to test them," she recalled. "In the beginning of our collaboration the ideas were his. I learned from him, and after collaborating for a modest period of time, sometimes we didn't know who had the idea first, and alternated first authorship of our publications."

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