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100th National Historic Chemical Landmark honors Bettye Washington Greene

Black scientist made significant contributions to the chemical industry

by Sophie Rovner, ACS staff
February 26, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 6


Black woman using equipment in a lab.
Credit: Courtesy of Dow and Science History Institute
Bettye Washington Greene in an undated photo from her time at Dow Chemical

Bettye Washington Greene became the first Black American female PhD chemist hired in the chemical industry when she began her career as a research scientist at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, in 1965. The American Chemical Society honored her achievements with its 100th National Historic Chemical Landmark designation during a ceremony at Wayne State University in Detroit on Oct. 27, 2023.

As part of observing Black History Month in February, the society celebrated Washington Greene and other accomplished Black chemists who overcame significant odds during their noteworthy careers. Several of these scientists have received the Landmark designation. ACS established the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program in 1992 to recognize important achievements in the history of chemistry and to increase public awareness of chemistry’s contributions to society.

“Bettye Washington Greene’s tenure at Dow opened the doors for other researchers of color. Celebrating her achievements is particularly meaningful as we consider the challenges that she must have encountered at that point of our history,” 2022 ACS president Angela K. Wilson said at the dedication ceremony. “Dr. Washington Greene stands as an aspirational role model for all of us—paving the way toward much-needed diversity across the sciences, across the country, and across the globe.”

The Landmark event was paired with Wayne State’s second annual Bettye Washington Greene Endowed Memorial Lectureship, presented by ACS president-elect Dorothy J. Phillips. Other speakers included representatives from Wayne State and Dow.

More on Bettye Washington Greene

Born in 1935 in Palestine, Texas, Washington Greene grew up in an environment in which rampant racism and sexism were determined to keep her from succeeding. Despite these significant challenges, she became one of the first Black female commercial chemists in the US and made key contributions to the field of materials science.

Washington Greene graduated from high school in the early 1950s. During this time, racism and sexism meant few professional pathways were available for Black women—or for women in general. Institutions funneled women mostly into nursing or teaching. Washington Greene wasn’t interested in either career option. She moved to Alabama to attend the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a coeducational, historically Black college. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1955. Two months after graduation, she married William Greene, an engineer who trained Tuskegee Airmen.

By the early 1960s, Washington Greene decided she wanted to continue her education. She earned her PhD at Wayne State in 1965. In achieving this milestone, she became the fifth Black woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry in the US. Later that year, Washington Greene joined Dow. She was the first Black female research scientist on the company’s staff. Even more groundbreaking than that, she was the first Black American female PhD chemist to join any chemical company.

Washington Greene’s research at Dow included light-scattering techniques, latexes, and other subjects, which contributed to innovations in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints, coatings, and catalysts. She also obtained three patents.

Washington Greene retired from Dow in 1990. She died on June 16, 1995, at the age of 60.

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