Throughout history, chemistry has often been viewed through the lens of its predominantly recognized figures, largely overshadowing the contributions of Black chemists who, against all odds, made monumental strides in the field.
From overcoming systemic racism and educational barriers to pioneering groundbreaking research that has shaped our modern world, these chemists have not only advanced the realm of science but also shattered ceilings for future generations.
In this article, we journey through the inspiring stories of famous Black chemists who, with resilience and brilliance, have etched their names into the very fabric of chemical history.
Famous Black Chemists
1. Percy Lavon Julian
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Julian faced the severe racial discrimination prevalent in the early 20th century U.S. Despite the challenges, he went on to earn his master’s degree from Harvard University and then his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in Austria.
Julian’s most notable contributions came in the realm of synthesizing organic compounds. One of his monumental successes was the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used to treat glaucoma.
Before Julian’s work, the drug could only be obtained in small amounts from its natural source, the Calabar bean. He not only successfully synthesized it but also produced it on a large scale, making it accessible to a broader number of patients.
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Later in his career, Julian developed a fire-extinguishing foam for gasoline fires, which was widely used during World War II.
He also pioneered the large-scale synthesis of steroids, particularly cortisone, from soybean oil. This synthesis provided a more affordable treatment option for individuals suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
2. Walter Lincoln Hawkins
Born in Washington, D.C., Hawkins graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1932. He later earned a Ph.D. from McGill University in 1938. Walter Hawkins then joined Bell Laboratories, where he became one of the institution’s most dedicated and influential researchers.
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Hawkins’s most impactful contribution to the world of science and technology was the invention of a plastic sheath for telephone cables. Before his innovation, the materials used to coat these cables would degrade quickly, leading to the need for frequent and costly replacements.
Hawkins’s plastic, made from a compound known as polyethylene, was not only more durable but was also resistant to temperature extremes and other environmental factors.
His work extended the life of telephone cables from a few years to over four decades, resulting in significant cost savings and reducing the environmental impact.
3. St. Elmo Brady
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Brady was a pioneer in more ways than one. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, he went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry.
Brady’s legacy isn’t just in his personal achievements but also in his dedication to education. He was instrumental in establishing strong chemistry programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Fisk University, Tuskegee University, Howard University, and Tougaloo College.
Through these programs, Brady ensured that future generations of Black chemists had the training and opportunities to pursue advanced research and make contributions to the field.
He emphasized rigorous academic standards and played a crucial role in establishing certified chemistry programs at HBCUs, which helped raise the overall standard of chemical education at these institutions.
4. Samuel P. Massie
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Samuel Proctor Massie faced racial discrimination throughout his life, but his determination to achieve in the academic world remained undeterred.
He obtained his bachelor’s degree from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College before obtaining a master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University. Despite facing racial barriers, he was accepted to Iowa State University to pursue his doctorate in the late 1940s.
During World War II, Massie was part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. research and development project responsible for the creation of atomic bombs. His role was predominantly to work on uranium isotopes.
After the war, his focus shifted, and he began to explore the development of drugs to combat various diseases. During the 1960s, he played a key role in research to find treatments for malaria.
In 1966, he made history by becoming the first African American professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He was appointed to this role following his active involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. During his tenure, he worked tirelessly to diversify the student body.
5. Marie Maynard Daly
Born in Queens, New York, Marie M. Daly broke racial and gender barriers by becoming the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. She achieved this distinction at Columbia University in 1947.
Daly’s research was primarily in the fields of biochemistry and molecular biology. One of her most significant contributions was her research on the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries. Her studies provided crucial insights into how diet and metabolism can affect heart health.
In addition to her research, Daly was deeply committed to addressing the lack of minorities in medical professions and graduate science programs. In honor of her father, she established a scholarship for African American science students at Queens College, hoping to spur more students to pursue their dreams in scientific fields.
6. James Andrew Harris
Born in Waco, Texas, James Andrew Harris made a lasting mark in the field of nuclear chemistry. He was a chemist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
Harris’s most notable contribution was his involvement in the discovery of new chemical elements. Alongside scientist Albert Ghiorso, Harris co-discovered element 104, rutherfordium (Rf), and element 106, seaborgium (Sg). These elements were synthesized by bombarding heavy nuclei with lighter ions.
James Andrew Harris’s achievements are all the more significant considering the racial barriers of the 1960s and 1970s. He stands out not only for his technical expertise but also as a trailblazer for future generations of Black scientists in the nuclear field.
7. Bettye Washington Greene
Dr. Greene was a pioneering chemist known for her research in latex products. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, she showed an aptitude for science early on.
Bettye pursued her passion, obtaining a Bachelor’s in Chemistry from Tuskegee Institute and then a Ph.D. from Wayne State University in Detroit. She became the first African American woman to be hired as a research chemist at the Dow Chemical Company.
During her tenure at Dow, Dr. Greene conducted extensive research on polymers, leading to advancements in the production of latex and other polymers.
Beyond her technical work, she was also an active member of the American Chemical Society and played a pivotal role in efforts to support the advancement of women in the sciences.
8. Lloyd Noel Ferguson
Dr. Ferguson was a leading figure in organic chemistry. Born in Oakland, California, he faced several racial barriers but remained undeterred in his pursuit of education.
He earned a B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, and then a Ph.D. from the same institution, becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at UC Berkeley.
Over his career, Ferguson published over 50 research papers, primarily focused on organic chemistry, including the synthesis of important organic compounds and the development of diagnostic tests. He also wrote important textbooks used by budding chemists.
A dedicated educator, Dr. Ferguson taught at Howard University and later at California State University, Los Angeles, inspiring and mentoring numerous students over the years.
9. George Washington Carver
While many associate Dr. Carver with peanuts, his contributions span far beyond that single crop. Born into slavery in Missouri, Carver grew up during the Reconstruction era and faced immense racial prejudice.
Despite these challenges, he attended Iowa State Agricultural College, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in agricultural science.
At Tuskegee Institute, under the invitation of Booker T. Washington, Carver initiated research projects aimed at helping sharecroppers diversify their crops and improve their quality of life.
He advocated for crop rotation and introduced the idea of planting soil-enriching crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes.
Carver is credited with developing over 300 products from peanuts, including dyes, plastics, and gasoline, and another 100 products from sweet potatoes. His work transformed southern agriculture and ensured more sustainable farming practices.
10. Alma Levant Hayden
Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Hayden was a talented chemist known for her expertise in spectrophotometry, a technique used to measure how much a chemical substance absorbs light. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Howard University and then her master’s from Chicago University.
Hayden was one of the first African American scientists, and certainly among the first African American women, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In the early 1960s, she transitioned to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One of her notable achievements there was debunking the claims of Krebiozen, a drug that was fraudulently marketed as a cancer cure.
Using her expertise, she was able to determine its composition, revealing it as a simple amino acid and debunking its purported medicinal value. This was a significant accomplishment in the field of drug regulation and consumer protection.