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Black Women, Chemistry Pioneers

African American women staked out careers in chemistry despite racial and gender discrimination

by Sharon L. Neal
April 2, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 14

African American Women Chemists
by Jeannette E. Brown, Oxford University Press, 2011, 264 pages, $35 hardcover (ISBN13: 978-0-19-974288-2, ISBN10: 0-19-974288-X)
African American Women Chemists book cover
by Jeannette E. Brown, Oxford University Press, 2011, 264 pages, $35 hardcover (ISBN13: 978-0-19-974288-2, ISBN10: 0-19-974288-X)

When Chemical & Engineering News asked me to write a review of “African American Women Chemists,” by Jeannette E. Brown, I qualified my acceptance: “I am biased; I want to like it,” not only because I have a vested interest in the subject matter, but because I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to bring this project to fruition.

Credit: Courtesy of Olivia Holmes
Photo of Jeannette E. Brown in yellow sweater and bead necklace
Credit: Courtesy of Olivia Holmes

It has been several years since I first met Brown—a retired Merck & Co. research chemist and the 2009 Glenn E. & Barbara Hodson Ullyot Scholar of the Chemical Heritage Foundation—and learned of her intention to write a book recounting the life stories of the first African American women chemists. Whenever I would see her at American Chemical Society meetings, she would mention this work and I would nod and smile. Now I worry that while I tried to look encouraging, my skepticism about her ability to complete such a book poked through.

I was skeptical not only because of the small number of African American women chemistry pioneers, but also because I doubted that their lives were sufficiently documented to support a book. I could name a few African American men who had earned Ph.D.s in chemistry and had careers of distinction before affirmative action—Percy Julian, Lloyd Ferguson, and Samuel Massie, for instance—but I couldn’t name any black women in chemistry from that time, distinguished or otherwise. As I smiled I was thinking, “A whole book on this topic is impossible. What source material can there be?”

The last time I saw Brown, she was clearly dealing with health challenges and using a scooter to get around at the ACS meeting. I was more convinced her book would remain unwritten. I should have known better, though. How could writing a book about African American women chemists be more impossible than the accomplishments that the book recounts? I should have realized that Brown’s determination to write the book taps the same well that helped drive her subjects to pursue success in science.

In the first chapter of the book, Brown explains her motivations to write it, her selection of the women who are its focus, and her efforts to collect all the information available about these pioneering African American women chemists into a single compilation. She says she was prompted to write the book by several factors: the inspiration she drew from meeting Marie Maynard Daly, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry; requests for more information about pioneering women chemists when she presented talks at national meetings; and a desire to see all the information available on this subject collected into a single resource, particularly for young people who might be inspired by the pioneers’ example.

The result of Brown’s heroic effort is a 264-page book describing the work and lives of 26 African American women pioneers in the chemical enterprise. After a chapter describing the six women who earned college degrees in chemistry before World War II, Brown recounts the life and work of Daly, who earned her doctoral degree in 1948. The next four chapters describe the lives of 18 women grouped according to the sector of the chemical enterprise in which they worked: education, industry/government laboratories, industry/government leadership, and chemical engineering. The book closes with a chapter describing Brown’s own career and another that provides guidance counseling for young people who are interested in pursuing chemistry careers.

As expected, the amount and quality of the source material describing individual pioneers vary substantially throughout the book. The chapter describing the life and work of Daly is one of my favorites because it begins before WWII but contains enough information to shed some light on her motivations for studying chemistry and the circumstances that enabled her to develop her scholarship. Her father, Ivan C. Daly, had immigrated to the U.S. from the West Indies to accept a chemistry scholarship at Cornell University. Sadly, he could not find the money to pay for room and board, so he never completed his studies. But he did pass his love of chemistry on to his daughter.

It is clear that Ivan Daly’s interest and encouragement played a role in Marie Daly’s pursuit of a science career, as did the economic conditions leading up to WWII. She also benefited from the outstanding educational opportunities available in New York City’s public schools at that time. A graduate of Hunter College High School, a laboratory high school for girls run by Hunter College faculty, she earned a B.S. degree at Queen’s College, in Flushing, N.Y., with honors. Labor shortages and the need for scientists to support the war effort enabled her to garner fellowships to study at New York University and Columbia University for her master’s and Ph.D. degrees, respectively. At Columbia, she worked for Mary Letitia Caldwell, a pioneer in the enzymology and purification of amylases, characterizing the breakdown of cornstarch by pancreatic amylase.

After a brief stint teaching at Howard University, Daly spent seven years in biochemical research at Rockefeller Institute, followed by five years in the laboratory of Quentin Deming at Goldwater Memorial Hospital. In 1960, she was appointed assistant professor of biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She was promoted to associate professor in 1972. At Einstein, Daly conducted sponsored research, taught in the classroom, mentored numerous students, and administered programs to increase the number of underrepresented students in New York’s medical schools. After a full career, she retired in 1986.

One of the biggest questions I had as I began the book was how the book would handle the complex and potentially incendiary topic of race- and gender-motivated discrimination the women profiled encountered as they pursued their educations and careers. Clearly, any author writing on this topic is challenged to balance detail and accuracy with readability and impact. I wondered if I would see echoes of my own experiences or learn innovative strategies for handling challenging situations effectively.

I found the same bifurcated discussion I see in most public discourse on this subject: full-throated critique of the blatant institutional discrimination that was common before the civil rights era and careful, euphemistic descriptions of the subtle intolerance that often characterizes unproductive cross-cultural interactions between individuals.

When instances of institutional discrimination, such as the racial discrimination the pioneers faced because of Jim Crow laws—the legalized segregation in the pre-civil-rights era—appear in a profile, it is mentioned as a matter of fact. For example, the book clearly describes the context of the experiences of Mary Antoinette Schiesler, a former nun who earned a master’s degree in biochemistry and later a Ph.D. in chemical education, and her husband, a white former priest who became an Episcopalian clergyman. According to the profile, in the mid-1970s they “ran into trouble when they traveled in the South, as in some states it was still illegal for a white person to be married to a black person.”

Similarly, the book explains in detail the impact of Jim Crow laws on Reatha Clark King’s efforts to obtain a graduate education in 1958. According to the profile, King “also received a grant from the State of Georgia because of the United States ‘Separate but Equal Rule’ for higher education. Higher education in the state of Georgia remained segregated in 1958; however, the state had to give her a grant to attend graduate school in another state since she was qualified to attend the white state university in Georgia.” These explanations appeared often, and I eventually began to find them a little tedious. On reflection, I realized that repetitive explanations of segregation are required so that young people whose knowledge of post-Civil War American history is limited can read each profile individually.

On the other hand, the book is circumscribed in its description of the more complex types of discrimination that can occur between individuals and in small groups. I am hard-pressed to find an example of discrimination involving specific individuals that Brown, or one of the pioneers she profiles, characterizes in explicitly racial or gendered terms. For example, the profile of Lynda Marie Jordan, who in 1985 was the third black woman to earn a Ph.D. degree in chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes the working environment she encountered in graduate school as “chilly,” without any discussion of the dynamics that underpin that characterization.

Similarly, the profile of former Department of Commerce undersecretary Cheryl Shavers, who served during the Clinton Administration, describes her relegation to menial tasks during an undergraduate internship in the crime lab of the Phoenix Police Department in the 1970s as “her first political setback.” According to the profile, when she first started at the crime lab, Shavers proved her competence by helping to develop a method for the separation of blood enzymes from trace materials—a technique known as enzyme typing.

After the method was successfully used in a murder trial, the lab director, invoking procedural protocols, took her away from conducting supervised lab experiments and assigned her to a series of menial tasks: washing police cars, picking up dry cleaning, and janitorial errands. Because it is impossible to know a person’s intentions in circumstances like this one, limiting explanations to euphemistic terms such as “setbacks” is the simplest choice. A more nuanced discussion of these issues certainly requires more documentation, and it may have made the book less appropriate for an important segment of its audience: young people.

The author was clearly writing a book that is accessible to young people, but there is inspiration for scientists of all ages and backgrounds in the stories of the women Brown profiles. Of course, they all were (or are) curious, brilliant, and remarkably persistent, but their personal journeys differ. Most of the pioneers came from families of relatively modest means. Some had educated parents, while others were the first in their families to finish high school. Some of these accomplished women chemists found educational and employment opportunity close to home, while others had to travel great distances. Some of them loved school and their teachers from the first day; others were languishing at some point in their educational experience, unappreciated by teachers until they were rescued by a mentor or sponsor outside the classroom.

Some married and had children; others stayed single. Some worked in a single area for their entire career, while others moved from academia to industry or government. Still others left the laboratory for careers in business or law.

Collecting these stories into a single source has made it possible for all of us to be inspired and encouraged by the life stories of these 26 trailblazers. Thank you, Jeannette Brown.


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