Skip to main content
Skip to main menu Skip to spotlight region Skip to secondary region Skip to UGA region Skip to Tertiary region Skip to Quaternary region Skip to unit footer


Celebrating Women's History: Margaret Oakley Dayhoff

Margaret Oakley Dayhoff

Dr. Margaret Oakley Dayhoff worked at the intersection of several scientific disciplines to bring the analytical power of computers to the broader research community. Her approach was revolutionary to a wide variety of fields, from chemistry and biology to physics and even planetary science (in collaboration with Carl Sagan and Ellis Lippincott). But she is best known for founding an entirely new field: today, she is remembered as “both mother and father of bioinformatics.” 

In the mid-1940s when Dayhoff first embarked on her PhD in quantum chemistry, the most advanced computing technologies were not only unwieldy and obtuse but developed during World War II for military purposes. The very few computers that existed had only just begun to expand beyond the realm of mathematicians and military scientists. But Dayhoff happened to be studying at Columbia University, home of one of the only computer systems in the world at the time, and having earned her bachelor's degree in mathematics, she became one of the first researchers with access to a computer. 

Dayhoff immediately recognized the potential of early computers for scientific research. Her doctoral thesis introduced a method for calculating properties of organic molecules using the punch-card systems available at the time. It was one of the first times a scientist had ever used a computer to conduct their research, and her work represented a significant milestone for the field of data science. 

But Dayhoff's most well-known contributions happened in the latter part of her career, after she took a brief hiatus from academic work to raise her daughters. By the time she returned to her research in the early sixties, the computing world had made major strides in both efficiency and accessibility: the room-sized computers were still miles behind today's laptops and phones in terms of user-friendliness, but innovations like the introduction of "human-readable" programming languages - i.e. ones that use english words to dictate commands rather than numerical codes - brought their usage within closer reach of people from entirely different fields.* 

Dayhoff went on to develop methods and conventions for conducting analyses that made future bioinformatics work possible. Devising a system of encoding protein sequences represented by single-letter codes (still in use today), she constructed the first protein sequence alignments and developed computational algorithms to compare evolutionary distance between species. From these she produced the first computer-generated phylogenetic trees. Dayhoff also authored the “Atlas of Protein Sequence and Structure,” a book collecting and cataloging all 65 protein sequences known at the time in one place. She intended to use it to create a searchable virtual database of sequence data; though she died before she could finish at only 57, the work she began ultimately grew into the Protein Information Resource: the world's first publicly accessible online database. In addition to inspiring many other virtual databases in the decades that followed, it was eventually combined with several of these to form today's UniProt database. 

It is easy for scientists today to appreciate the value of computers in their research. But in Dayhoff's time, the technology was so new and evolving so quickly that simply recognizing its potential in a new context was not enough; applying it meant taking an active part in the development of the technology itself. Dayhoff didn't just combine computer science and biology, she introduced completely new approach to biological research and built a framework of tools that still supports bioinformatics research today. 

* The concept of using plain english to communicate with computers was proposed by Grace Hopper, another woman pioneer in computer science. Among many other contributions to modern computing, Hopper led the development of the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which became the basis for FORTRAN - one of the earliest and most influential programming languages in history. 


Article written by: Rosemary Wills 




Support us

We appreciate your financial support. Your gift is important to us and helps support critical opportunities for students and faculty alike, including lectures, travel support, and any number of educational events that augment the classroom experience. Click here to learn more about giving.

Give Now

Every dollar given has a direct impact upon our students and faculty.