Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary Shaw Shorb, Ph.D. (1907-1990)
MSA SC 3520-13564

    Growing up in Idaho with an interest in biology and natural discovery, Mary Shaw Shorb took advantage of her surroundings and pursued the field of science, an uncommon aspiration for a young woman at the beginning of the twentieth century.  During Ms. Shorb’s youth, she spent much time with her future spouse, who she first met in kindergarden, and a neighbor collecting and inspecting natural specimens, particularly mushrooms and wildflowers.  In 1924, Shorb graduated from high school and enrolled in the College of Idaho, where she was convinced by faculty to apply her experience to a major in biology and a minor in home economics.  Ms. Shorb graduated with a BS in Biology in 1928. Unable to find a job in her field, she chose to take one as a dietician at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where her brother attended medical school.  Though she was close to her brother, this was not her ideal position. Nonetheless, she applied herself to learn an entirely new profession in dietetics.  Shorb grew increasingly dissatisfied with her professional choice and decided to reapply herself toward the science field.  Johns Hopkins University received a grant to research a cure for the common cold, and she approached the Department of Immunology with her resume for a research position.  She was hired, however, as funds ran out, she was among the researchers who were let go from the program. Determined to remain in the field, Shorb decided to pursue further education in immunology at the University.

    In 1929, Ms. Shorb married her high school sweetheart, Doys Shorb, and the two attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins University.  Doys earned a graduate degree in parasitology, while Mary earned a Sc.D. in immunology.  Ms. Shorb flourished in her doctorate program. "Her dissertation research used rabbits to develop a heterophile antigen that proved to be effective in preventing and treating a number of human diseases, including pneumonia.”1  Ms. Shorb’s capability to explore and discover ground-breaking material was outstanding; however, as a female scientist, she was still not welcomed by the science community, which affected her professional choices.  Though she had a doctoral degree, she was unable to find a professional scientific position due to a decline in scientific research, but also because of her gender.  Professional female scientists were uncommon, thus men were not willing to work with them, nor did they believe in their aptitude for the science profession.  Finally, Dr. Shorb took a position in social work, a profession that was more suitable for women by social standards.  Of course, this was not her desired choice of career, so she remained only a few years, until 1936, when she decided to stay home and apply herself as a wife and mother.

    With the onset of World War II, women entered the workforce to replace men who joined the military services.  This was not the case with Dr. Shorb, who felt shunned by the scientific community, and therefore was hesitant to do such. It was not until her friend explained to her that it was her patriotic duty to work and support America at this time of crisis, that she re-entered the workforce.2   She took a job with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland as a bacteriologist, however, the male scientific community shunned her once again, when she had to remit her position to a returning male veteran after working for only a couple of years.  Nevertheless, Dr. Shorb’s interest in science had been reignited, and she began to seek out new opportunities for herself that allowed her to continue her new and unique research to cure pernicious anemia.

    Pernicious Anemia is a liver condition that is "caused by a lack of intrinsic factor secretion in the stomach, a protein required for vitamin B12 absorption.”3   This was a known condition that had affected more than 50,000 people by 1925, and had even caused the death of Dr. Shorb's father.  Building on her experimental work with the USDA, Dr. Shorb discovered a unique attribute of Lactobacillus Lactis Dorner (LLD) that could potentially serve as a bioassay for medical research on pernicious anemia.  Previous research had found an effective treatment of pernicious anemia, but research for a cure had slowed for lack of sufficient bioassay materials.  This discovery of LLD’s potential was worth investigating, however, Dr. Shorb needed a laboratory and funds to continue her exclusive proposal.

    An opportunity to conduct research came from the University of Maryland, an arrangement provided by Dr. George Briggs, another researcher who had confidence in Dr. Shorb’s theory.  The University offered her a position as a researcher, but put her on official leave without pay so that she could still use the laboratory but also manage to seek out funding for her hypothesis as a University affiliate.  Now that Shorb had a laboratory, she had to overcome public resistance of her gender and her aptitude in such a distinct scientific theory.  Initial efforts to recruit funding failed until a representative from the Merck Company met with Dr. Briggs about another project.  Karl Folkers decidedly offered Dr. Briggs reciprocal collaboration from the Merck Company on research, and he Dr. Briggs immediately suggested Dr. Shorb’s proposal.  Folkers and Merck Company embraced Dr. Shorb’s hypothesis and provided her project with an initial $400 of funding to isolate the anti-pernicious anemia factor, soon to be identified as vitamin B12.  As a result of their persistence and partnership, "Mary Shaw Shorb and Karl Folkers were co-recipients of the Mead Johnson Award from the American Society of Nutritional Sciences in 1949.”5   This distinguished achievement provided for Dr. Shorb’s access to the male-dominated field of science.

    At a time when women scientists were a minority, Dr. Shorb proved that women were equally competent in the field of science when given the opportunity.  As a result, the University of Maryland appointed Dr. Shorb as a full research professor in 1949, which allowed her to pursue her interests in research without teaching while also "help[ing] guide chosen graduate students through research and academic mazes.”6  Mary Shaw Shorb stayed in her role until her retirement in 1972.  During her career with the University of Maryland, she continued to achieve academic excellence with many published journal articles and research accomplishments in areas of nutrition, antibiotics, and bacteriology.  In 1970, Merck Company donated an endowment fund of $10,000 to the University of Maryland for the establishment the annual Mary Shorb Lectureship in Nutrition, which celebrates her career as a biochemist, immunologist, and microbiologist as well as encourages new research proposals and discoveries.

    Dr. Shorb is also well known in her community for being committed to her family and community.  With the support of her family, Dr. Shorb worked long hours but she was able to participate in many civic activities and clubs as well, such as the PTA, a volunteer librarian, member of the Beltsville Garden Club, and at one time the president of the Prince George’s Mental Health Association.7   Dr. Shorb also mentored many innovative student research proposals, thereby investing herself in the future of science.  She was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987 for her magnificent accomplishments and achievements.  After a stimulating lifetime, as a mother, professional, and civic member, Mary Shaw Shorb past away from kidney failure on August 18, 1990.  She is interred at George Washington Cemetery in Beltsville, Maryland.


1924  Caldwell High School
1928  College of Idaho, BS in Biology
1933  John Hopkins University, Sc.D. Immunology, Department of Poultry Science


1949-1972 Professor of research, University of Maryland College Park

1989  Television Documentary produced by Essex Community College
1988  Century Scientist Award, Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station Centennial Celebration
1988  Woman of the Year Award, Prince Georges County, Maryland
1987  Inducted Maryland Woman’s Hall of Fame
1983  College of Idaho, Honorary Doctorate of Science
1978  Honorary Degree of Science, College of Idaho
1968  Shorb Lectureship established by Merck and Company at the University of Maryland College Park
1966  Distinguished Alumnus Award, College of Idaho
1966  Outstanding Graduate, College of Idaho
1961  Sigma XI Distinguished Scientist Award
1957  Sigma Xi Research Award
1951  Outstanding Woman of the Year, Hood College
1949  Co-Recipient Mead Johnson Award of the American Society of Nutritional Sciences
1948  Co-Recipient Mead-Johnson Research Award on Vitamin B Complex
          Hematology Research Foundation Award
          Distinguished Alumna Award, College of Idaho

 Publications list available at


1. Richard A. Ahrens, "Mary Shaw Shorb (1907-1990)," Journal of Nutrition. 123:  791-796, 1993. (Accessed August 8, 2007), 792. Return to text
2.  Ahrens,  792. Return to text
3. University of Maryland College Park. (Accessed August 8, 2007). Return to text
4.  Ahrens, 792. Return to text
5.  University of Maryland College Park. (Accessed August 8, 2007). Return to text
6.  Richard Pearson, "Mary Shorb, Pioneering Scientist, Dies," Washington Post (Obituary Section), August 20, 1990. Return to text
7.  Pearson. Return to text

 Biography written by Jenette Parish, Summer Intern 2007.

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