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Maria Przybylska (1923-2008)

[Maria Przybylska] Maria Przybylska

Maria Przybylska (maiden name Kolasa) passed away peacefully on October 8, 2008 in Ottawa, Canada. She was born on March 2, 1923 in Warsaw, Poland. Having narrowly escaped Poland with her father and brother just ahead of the German and Russian invasion of 1939, she made her way to Scotland. She studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow and her passion was to study biologically relevant molecules. After she attended a lecture by John Monteith Robertson on the application of X-ray crystallographic methods to determine structures of organic molecules she was inspired to pursue graduate work withRobertson. She determined the structure of quinol dimethyl ether with only a slide rule to perform the inverse Fourier transforms.

She obtained a fellowship from the National Research Council of Canada (NRCC) to work in the X-ray Diffraction and Electron Microscopy Section headed by W. H. Barnes where, in collaboration with Leo Marion and F. R. Ahmed, she started working on the structures of alkaloids. This work led to her appointment in 1951 to the NRCC’s Division of Applied Chemistry. Structure determination of organic molecules at that time required patience. Data processing for a molecule of ∼25 atoms took months! However, there was great excitement in solving every new structure as each one provided substantial new insights. Maria was able to assemble a group of excellent scientists. Later, her group was merged with the group of F. R. Ahmed and A. W. Hanson and was incorporated into the Division of Biological Sciences. During the latter part of her career she focused on immunochemistry and the challenges of crystallizing and solving structures of large biologically significant proteins. Maria spent many years studying the haptoglobin-hemoglobin complex. Her desire to solve the structure of a protein was fulfilled with her participation in the oncomodulin project in collaboration with F. R. Ahmed and others. Structures of several other proteins were later determined in the laboratory, including the antibody Fab fragments specific forSalmonella and Brucella polysaccharide antigens.

Maria had little patience for bureaucracy and administration, preferring to work in the wet lab, solving and analyzing structures. Maria was 'all business' when it came to her laboratory, insisting on thoroughness, cleanliness and accuracy. She was a rather private person, but always ready to discuss her or others’ research projects. Behind this business-like front was a kind, caring and supportive person who welcomed newcomers to the group and provided adviceand guidance when needed.

Maria worked at NRCC until her retirement in 1988 and continued her research as her health and facilities would permit into the late 1990s. Her distinguished scientific career spanned 50 productive years, yielding 70 publications. She was pre-deceased by her husband Waclaw Przybylski (1918-2005), and is survived by two sons, Martin and Steven (Michelle), and grandchildren.

We are thankful to Farid Ahmed, Eric Gabe, Carol Huber, George Birnbaum, Margaret Pippy and Helen Sheppard for useful input. Photograph is courtesy of Steven Przybylski.

Mirek Cygler and David R. Rose