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For this Women’s History Month, we would like to honor Mary Ellen Jones, PhD. You may recognize her name from the building that sits on the edge of the UNC Medical Center campus, but Jones is recognized for so much more.

In an era when it was difficult for women to advance, Mary Ellen Jones, PhD, was the first woman to chair a department at the UNC School of Medicine and the first woman to be named a Kenan Distinguished Professor.

Jones devoted her career to studying enzymes involved in amino acid and nucleic acid metabolism for more than fifty years. One of her many scientific achievements was her discovery of carbamoyl phosphate, a compound that is essential for the creation of cytosine, thymine, and uracil – the very building blocks that make up our DNA and RNA.

The discovery of carbamoyl phosphate was truly significant. Not only did the finding rapidly influence research in many other laboratories, but her studies also laid the foundation for basic cancer research, said the New York Times, who called her a “crucial researcher on DNA” in a 1996 feature story.

Over time, enzymes like Cathepsin C, dihydroorotate synthase, UMP synthase, carbamoyl phosphate, and many other enzymes fell under her inquisitive eye. She was one of the first scientists to study multifunctional enzymes. You can read more about her contributions to science in a biographical memoir, written by the National Academies Press.

“Jones’ pioneering work on carbamoyl phosphate revolutionized the field and illuminated the pathways involved in DNA and RNA synthesis inside our cells,” said Blossom Damania, vice dean for research at UNC School of Medicine. “Her accomplishments as a scientific leader and as the very first woman chair in the School of Medicine lives on at UNC. Indeed, the Mary Ellen Jones building on our campus is a tribute to her amazing legacy.”

How Her Legendary Science Career Began

Mary Ellen Jones was born on December 25, 1922, in La Grange, Illinois. She was one of four children of Elmer and Laura Klein Jones. She received an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago in 1944 and worked at Armour and Company until 1948.

View of Armour & Company’s plant and stock yards from a balloon, c. 1910

It was at Armour and Company where she met Paul Munson, who then was director of the research laboratory. With Munson she would do her first research on androsterone and monopalmitin, leading to two publications in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Jones and Munson married in 1948 and had two children, but ultimately divorced in 1971.

Jones enrolled at Yale University in 1948 for graduate school, quickly realizing that enzymology was extremely fascinating. She said that each enzyme “develops a character uniquely its own.”

Under the direction of Joseph Fruton, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the Medical School at Yale, she completed her dissertation titled “Purification & Properties of Cathepsin C” in just three years and graduated in 1951. Jones become one of Yale’s most distinguished alumni and the namesake of the department’s dissertation prize.

Jones Leaves Mark on UNC Campus

When Paul Munson was offered the chair of pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1966, Jones relocated to UNC’s Department of Biochemistry, where she became professor in 1968.

The Mary Ellen Jones Building, which resides on the campus of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

Jones continued to show a spirit for pursuing new directions and new technologies throughout her late sixties. She was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 1981, the National Academy of Sciences in 1984, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991. She retired in 1995, soon after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. She died on August 23, 1996.

Jones was widely recognized for her scientific accomplishments and for her leadership roles. Among her awards were the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale University (1982), the North Carolina American Chemical Society Distinguished Chemist (1986), the Thomas Jefferson Award from the University of North Carolina (1990), and the Award in Science awarded by the state of North Carolina (1991). She was also honored by having an 11-story research center dedicated with her name at 116 Manning Drive, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.