Maxine Singer: Picturing a Life in Science

Learn about the career of renowned molecular biologist Maxine Singer by closely examining two portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Maxine Singer (2012) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

As a distinguished molecular biologist and science administrator, Maxine Singer spent much of her career advocating for women in science and championing public education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). She is best remembered for her groundbreaking research on nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), the chemical elements of heredity.

Singer served as president of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., and is the first and only woman to have held this position (1988–2002). The institution commissioned the artist Jon R. Friedman to paint a portrait of Singer before her retirement.

Maxine Singer by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Friedman first takes photographs of his subjects, which serve as the basis for his painted or drawn preparatory studies. Both of Singer’s likenesses in the Portrait Gallery’s collection—made eleven years apart—are rooted in the artist’s photography session with Singer.

Maxine Singer (2001) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Face-to-Face: Jon Friedman, artist talk
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This large charcoal drawing served as a final compositional study for the Carnegie Institution’s painted portrait . Through the inclusion of various props, it makes visible Singer’s wide-ranging scientific interests. Friedman explains in this podcast clip how he creates and uses settings to produce narratives in his portraits.

The large model of a double-helix strand of DNA that appears behind Singer references the scientist’s long and accomplished career studying nucleic acids.

Model of DNA (1965) by George KagawaSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Singer completed her PhD in biochemistry at Yale University in 1957, just four years after the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick proposed the double-helix structure of DNA molecules. Upon realizing that this discovery promised future directions for research, Singer pursued a career in the then-emerging areas of nucleic acid chemistry and enzymology (the study of enzymes).

National Institute of Arthritic and Metabolic Diseases (NIAMD) staff (1959) by National Institutes of Health (U.S.)Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Singer began working at the National Institute of Arthritic and Metabolic Diseases at the National Institutes of Health in 1956. Her research on the role of enzymes in regulating the synthesis of DNA and RNA was crucial to deciphering the genetic code in the early 1960s.

Maxine Singer (2001) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Singer joined the National Cancer Institute in 1980, where she studied LINE-1, a long DNA sequence that repeats thousands of times across the human genome, in order to understand how it replicates and transposes itself. 


Her cutting-edge research helped illuminate the connection between the transposition of LINE-1 and genetic mutations, improving our understanding of the development and structure of various genetic diseases.

Singer poses with her right hand resting on a stack of books on a tabletop. The largest volume is Genes and Genomes, a popular graduate-level molecular genetics textbook that Singer co-authored. A model telescope appears to the left of the books.

As president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Singer oversaw the development of twin 6.5-meter optical telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Designing and constructing the telescopes was a complex enterprise. Each of their mirrors contains more than 21,000 pounds of borosilicate glass and took nearly a year and a half to create.

Maxine Singer (2001) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Two pictures on the shelves to the left of Singer evoke her commitment to public STEM education and her advocacy for women in science. 

One of the images shows Singer encouraging two youngsters and points to her efforts to improve science education at all levels. Through the Carnegie Academy for Science Education, Singer began hands-on science education and professional development programs for students and teachers in Washington, D.C.

The other picture portrays the scientist’s family. Singer, who raised four children while working full-time, is an advocate for equal access for women in scientific fields. As chair of the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, she commissioned a report examining the obstacles women face when pursuing careers in STEM fields and authored influential editorials calling attention to these barriers.

In this video clip, Singer offers advice to women considering careers in the sciences.

Maxine Singer (2012) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

This later likeness by Friedman, a large-scale oil painting on paper, presents a close-up view of Singer’s upper body against a stark background. By emphasizing her focused facial expression and precise hand gesture, the artist portrays Singer as an effective communicator and staunch public advocate for science.

Singer has been outspoken about the importance of staging open dialogues between scientists and the public. In the 1970s, she urged the development of ethical guidelines for the use of recombinant DNA techniques (inserting DNA fragments from one organism into the living cells of another). These guidelines helped shape public policy around genetics research at a time when the nascent field faced growing public skepticism.

Maxine Singer being awarded the National Medal of Science by President George H. W. Bush (1992) by The White HouseSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In recognition of Singer’s “outstanding scientific accomplishments and her deep concern for the societal responsibility of the scientist,” President George H. W. Bush awarded her the National Medal of Science in 1992.

Maxine Singer (2012) by Jon R. FriedmanSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Singer, who champions clearer communication between scientists and the general public, once said, “Science is not an inhuman or superhuman activity. It’s something that humans invented, and it speaks to one of our great needs—to understand the world around us.”

Credits: Story

Maxine Singer by Jon R. Friedman, 2012, Oil on gessoed paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the artist
© Jon R. Friedman

Maxine Singer by Jon R. Friedman, 2001, Charcoal on paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
© Jon R. Friedman

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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