Marylou Ingram '47MD

She ‘succeeded in a predominantly man’s world’

Marylou Ingram’s extraordinary talents carried her from hard times growing up during the Depression to the cover of Scientific American. Her research career spanned nearly 70 years, from University of Rochester radiation labs at the height of the Cold War, to the Huntington Medical Research Institute in Pasadena, CA where she was a pioneer in tissue engineering.

Ingram ’47MD paved the way for future generations of women—with her innovative research in cytometry, radiation biology, cellular biology, and immunology, and with her generous endowments that now support the students and scientists following in her footsteps.

The Marylou Ingram fellowships for graduate students in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences are an example.

So was the installation of Laurel Carney as the Marylou Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering in 2015, two years after Ingram’s death.

“Dr. Ingram will be remembered as one of the preeminent scientists of her time, a legacy she further enriched by establishing this professorship,” said Joel Seligman, then University president.

A ‘very jaunty young lady’

When Ingram enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1938, there was little or no indication that she had any interest in science as a career.

In her application essay she described growing up in Ashtabula, Ohio until age 8, a “very jaunty young lady, intensely interested in school and an enthusiastic pianist,” who shared an “intense love for reading, drawing, and music” with her older brother and sister.

Her father William was a machinist and her mother Mabel had worked as an interior decorator; after moving to Cleveland, the family “suffered rather severely” from the Depression, enduring “nerve-wracking years when even food was not too plentiful,” Ingram wrote.

Nonetheless, she excelled at John Marshall High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society, editor of the school paper, a medalist in French and English, and vice president of the student council.

Her chief vocational interests, she wrote in her application to the University, were writing, diplomatic service and music. Her least favorite subject: Math.

Exactly why and when those priorities changed is not clear. Ingram withdrew from the University in 1941 and returned to Cleveland to complete her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Western Reserve University in 1942 and 1943, respectively.

When she then re-entered the University of Rochester, it was to earn a medical degree.

Always open to new ideas

“There were only one or two women in the medical school classes she attended,” Alexander Nakeff ‘71PhD and Carleton C. Stewart ‘64MS ‘67PhD wrote in their 2013 memorial article about Ingram in Cytometry, the journal of the International Society for the Advancement of Cytometry.

“She was always non-political and never forgot she was a woman in (at that time) a man’s field. She had to deal with a number of male scientists many of whom did not like dealing with a woman.”

After completing her medical degree in 1947, Ingram served as an instructor, then assistant professor and associate professor in the Department of Radiation Biology and Biophysics. 

A Rochester Review article in March 1957 described her work with the University’s Atomic Energy Project, which had a research and development staff of 250 and an annual budget of over one and a half million dollars to study a broad range of the medical and health problems associated with the development and use of atomic energy.

Ingram drew white blood cells from laboratory dogs in an effort to help answer a basic question at that time: “what happens when a shortage of white cells develops in a body and how quickly can the body produce new ones to overcome the shortage?”

She served as a member of a US Public Health Team performing hematologic studies of uranium miners “out of a little trailer lab on the Colorado Plateau... painstakingly eyeballing blood smears” to document low dose radiation effects, Nakeff and Stewart wrote.

At the time, more than one million blood smears a day were being analyzed in US hospitals by technicians peering into microscopes. This was not only expensive—costing several millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of person-hours—but often unreliable.

A collaboration between Ingram and Kendall Preston resulted in one of the first automated computer systems to analyze blood smears, which they described in a cover article for Scientific American in 1970.

Graduate students who worked with Ingram at the time, including Nakeff and Stewart, describe her as a mentor who “took great pride in her students’ accomplishments and gave them credit for them. Her open-door policy meant that whenever we needed her advice and counsel she was always there.” She was always positive, always open to new ideas.

“She had a great zest for life: loving music, both classical and jazz, plants, and old movies. She was known for her keen sense of humor, hardy laugh, and the flamboyant-bright scarves that she wore each day.”

A role model for young scientists

In 1969, Ingram began working at the University of California’s Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, studying the potential impact of low gravity on blood cell function during space travel. From 1975-77, she was principal investigator at UC’s Los Alamos National Laboratory for an NCI grant, using advanced, experimental flow cytometry for cancer cell analysis and sorting.

Wallace Coulter, the influential inventor of the "Coulter Principle," which is used to perform complete blood counts, then persuaded Ingram to establish and serve as first director of the Institute for Cell Analysis at the University of Miami.

Ingram had been “an instant convert to the new accurate blood counting tools developed by Wallace Coulter,” says J. Paul Robinson, the SVM Professor of Cytomics in the College of Veterinary Medicine and a professor of biomedical engineering in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University, “and she staked her scientific reputation on their use. I can only imagine Marylou driving across the country with a trailer attached with a small mobile lab which contained a revolutionary Coulter counter. I can see her telling Joe or Wallace Coulter exactly how she was going to use this tool to further her research.

“Marylou Ingram recognized technology advances that would have impact well before many others.”

She remained five years at Miami, before joining the Huntington Medical Research Institute in Pasadena, CA, in 1982 as a senior research scientist and head of the tissue engineering and in vitro systems program. She led the development of a microgravity tissue culture method using a NASA bioreactor, then an HMRI bioreactor for creating 3D tumor models, called histoids, which held great promise for screening new anticancer drugs.

“She never retired but remained actively involved in her research program until the end of her life -- and enjoyed living every day in her dear Spanish hacienda in the hills of Pasadena,” Nakeff and Stewart wrote.

Robinson recalls seeing Ingram at an International Society for Advancement of Cytometry meeting in San Diego in 2013, shortly before her death. “She walked the length of that conference center - she presented a poster and put it up herself.....and she was 93 years old! What an amazing lady she was.  I stand in awe of someone who has dedicated her entire life to the betterment of mankind.”

Whereas most people spend about 30 years perfecting their skills and achieving their goals and then they retire, he added, “Marylou spent her second life of another 30 years doing more things than probably any other two people.” 

Nakeff and Stewart remember her as “an amazing scientist whose long career was full of discovery, innovation, perseverance, and leadership; an amazing woman who was successful in a predominantly man’s world; and an amazingly loyal mentor and friend who created a role model for the many young scientists to follow.

“She left, with those of us fortunate enough to have been her students and colleagues, a profound appreciation of the scientific method, with a keen sense of the value of words one uses to communicate, clearly and concisely, complex scientific ideas and concepts.”