This story was updated on Feb. 21, 2020, to include profiles of St. Elmo Brady, Mary Elliott Hill, and Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. The story was updated on Sept. 29, 2020, to include a new introduction and add profiles for Marie Maynard Daly, Percy Lavon Julian, and James Ellis Lu Valle.
As she worked her way through college and graduate school in the 1990s, Sibrina Collins was struck by what was missing in her chemistry education: people who looked like her. A young Black woman, fascinated by inorganic chemistry, and all the faces and names in her textbooks were white.
After getting her PhD, Collins told herself that when she became a professor, she would change that. So, while teaching first-year students at the College of Wooster about bonds, valences, and the myriad other introductory chemistry topics, she peppered in stories of chemists like the ingenious Alice Ball, the fruitful Percy Julian, and the groundbreaking St. Elmo Brady. Chemists who looked like her. Chemists who were rarely mentioned in textbooks.
“My goal was really to broaden the image of a chemist in the classroom for all my students to see,” she tells C&EN. “I really do think that chemists, scientists, we are historians. We just tell the stories through the molecules and systems that we study.”
Collins, who is now the executive director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University, says that beyond broadening students’ horizons, sharing the stories of these distinguished Black scientists helps level the playing field and helps right a far-too-entrenched wrong of disregarding Black achievement in chemistry or even omitting it from the field’s history.
“I was just trying to address equity in some way,” she says.
That was our goal too.
In February 2019, C&EN first published this list of noteworthy chemists in honor of Black History Month. We started with six people whose work has shaped the discipline and whose discoveries have changed our lives for the better. We asked for your feedback on whom to add next, and you responded, sharing stories of your relationships with some of our honorees and urging us to add more. Please keep sending us suggestions. We’ll keep updating.
Around the turn of the 20th century, leprosy was a major public health concern in Hawaii. Alice Ball was a chemistry instructor at the College of Hawaii, which would become the University of Hawaii. She had earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the institution, looking for active components in a medicinal plant, the kava root. Ball was the first woman and first Black woman to earn a chemistry degree at the university, as well as to become an instructor.
In 1916, Harry Hollmann, a doctor at Kalihi Hospital who was treating people with leprosy, asked Ball to help him determine the active ingredients in chaulmoogra, a plant that had been used with some success to treat the disease. Hollmann was looking to isolate something concentrated and injectable, and in one year, Ball had figured out how to fractionate the active oil, allowing her to solubilize it (Arch. Derm. Syphilol. 1922, DOI: 10.1001/archderm.1922.02350260097010).
Ball died suddenly, at the age of 24, possibly of accidental chlorine poisoning in a laboratory. Her work was taken up by a male scientist who tried to take credit for her discoveries. Chaulmoogra injections based on Ball’s work became a standard treatment for leprosy until the 1940s. In 2000, Hawaii Lieutenant Governor Mazie Hirono named Feb. 29 “Alice Ball Day.”
In 1916, St. Elmo Brady, born in Louisville, Kentucky, became the first African American to earn a PhD in chemistry. He did his graduate work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and his research focused on how the acidity of carboxylic acids changed based on the addition of different chemical groups. He taught for several years at what would eventually be called Tuskegee University and eventually became the chair of the chemistry department at Howard University.
Several years later, Brady returned to Fisk University, where he had earned his undergraduate degree, to lead its chemistry department. He took over from another noted Black chemist, Thomas W. Talley.
At Fisk, Brady created the nation’s first graduate program in chemistry at a historically Black college and eventually did the same at three other universities. In 2019, the American Chemical Society designated the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Fisk University, Tuskegee University, Howard University, and Tougaloo College National Historic Chemical Landmarks because of the work that Brady accomplished at those institutions. He died in 1966.
Marie Maynard Daly was the first Black woman in the US to earn a PhD in chemistry. She earned her doctorate from Columbia University in 1947. As a graduate student, she studied the workings of a digestive enzyme, and as a postdoctoral fellow, she investigated the mysteries of the cell nucleus. Her research helped scientists understand histones, proteins that both aid in the organization of our genomes and influence gene expression.
Daly also showed that high blood pressure led to clogged arteries and that high levels of cholesterol were an important contributor to this aspect of metabolic disease. She also investigated the role of smoking in high blood pressure.
Outside the lab, Daly taught at Howard University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine and worked hard to improve the ranks of underrepresented groups in medicine and science. In 1988, in honor of her father, who had to abandon his chemistry degree because of the cost, she started a scholarship at Queens College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
When he was young, Lloyd Noel Ferguson was a literal backyard chemist, inventing a moth repellent and a spot remover in the yard behind the Oakland home where he grew up. In 1943, he became the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. He worked on a defense project, creating products that might release oxygen for use in submarines.
Eventually Ferguson switched coasts, moving to Howard University to teach and lead that school’s chemistry program. As a researcher, he studied several topics, including the chemistry of taste. He was part of the team that created Howard’s chemistry doctoral program, the first at any historic Black college or university. Ferguson was relentless in creating opportunities for Black people interested in chemistry and biochemistry and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was one of the cofounders of NOBCChE, the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers. The organization named an award after him that reflected his passion for bringing up the ranks of young Black chemists—the Lloyd N. Ferguson Young Scientist Award for Excellence in Research. He died in 2011.
In 1965, in the years before riots over civil rights engulfed parts of Detroit, Bettye Washington Greene was putting the finishing touches on her Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Wayne State University. Her thesis focused on how particles distribute themselves in emulsions, and this research served her well. Later that year, Bettye Washington Greene became the first Black woman to work for Dow Chemical.
While at Dow, she worked on developing colloids and on ways to improve latex. She published several papers related to work in developing polymers, including studying different properties that lend to the redispersement of latex.
Among Greene’s many accomplishments are several patents related to latex, including a latex-based adhesive using a carboxylic acid copolymerizing agent, and latex polymers with phosphates used as coatings. Greene died in 1995.
The cables used for telephone lines need to be protected from the sun’s rays, water, and heat, among other things. Before the 1950s, these cables had protective coatings made from either toxic lead or plastics, which, at the time, were prone to rapid degradation via oxidation.
Enter Walter Lincoln Hawkins, a chemist at Bell Laboratories and the company’s first Black employee in a technical position. He and a partner developed a cable sheath made of a then-new class of thioether compounds and carbon black, combined with polyethylene. The work improved the lifespan of telecommunication cables to up to 70 years and led to the expansion of telecommunications all over the world. This sheath was one of dozens of products patented by Hawkins in his lifetime. He held multiple positions at Bell and was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Hawkins believed strongly in mentoring minority students, leading a project by the American Chemical Society to promote chemistry as a subject and a profession. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Technology & Innovation, in part for his work in helping rural communities establish telephone communications. He died just two months later.
In 1963, two doctors named Stevan Durovic and Andrew C. Ivy were treating cancer patients with krebiozen, a compound they called a cure for the disease.
Except that it wasn’t, and Alma Levant Hayden, then a scientist at the National Institute of Arthritis and Metabolic Diseases, showed the world why. After federal researchers coaxed the tiniest samples from the doctor and his partner, Hayden analyzed krebiozen. The results were stunning. This compound being touted as a cancer cure was nothing more than creatine, a molecule readily available in our diets.
Hayden was among the first federal scientists of color, working at what would become the National Institutes of Health and then the Food and Drug Administration. She specialized in using spectrometry to detect steroids. At a career forum for young women in 1962, Hayden told the mostly high school attendees, “Always try to do the very best and to be the very best in whatever group you are working with.” She died in 1967.
Mary Elliott Hill was a chemist and teacher who worked alongside her husband, Carl Hill, for many years in the mid-1900s. The duo specialized in plastics, using Grignard reactions to form ketenes, highly reactive compounds used in the formation of esters, amides, and other challenging compounds. Hill was an analytical chemist, designing spectroscopic methods and developing ways to track the progress of the reactions based on solubility.
Hill was born in 1907 in South Mills, South Carolina. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1929 from what would eventually be called Virginia State University. Throughout her career, she taught high school– and college-level chemistry. In 1951, she became the head of the chemistry department at Tennessee State University, eventually leaving to become a professor at Kentucky State College when her husband was named the school’s president.
Hill instituted student chapters of the American Chemical Society at some of the historically Black colleges and universities where she taught. Many of her students became chemistry professors, and she won awards for her teaching. In the 1960s, she observed that more women were becoming interested in science, but they lost interest because of the realities of research life at that time. Hill died in 1969.
Percy Lavon Julian made many discoveries in a wide array of chemical disciplines, and all during an era in which segregationist laws limited Black Americans’ access to higher education. Born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, he left the South to enroll at DePauw University, where he had to take high school classes at the same time as his college courses to fulfill the university’s undergraduate requirements.
After receiving a master’s degree from Harvard University, Julian taught, first at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and then at Howard University, where he became the chair of the Chemistry Department. He then went to Austria to get his doctoral degree in organic chemistry at the University of Vienna. Afterward, Julian returned to DePauw and began the hallmark research that would eventually lead to his 11-step synthesis of physostigmine, an alkaloid in the Calabar bean that can be used to treat glaucoma.
Later in his career, as chief chemist and the director of the soybean section of Glidden, Julian drew from his academic research to develop efficient syntheses of steroids, as well as nonmedicinal products, such as a fire-retardant foam that was used during World War II on gasoline fires. Julian also started his own chemical company, Julian Laboratories, as well as the nonprofit Julian Research Institute. Before his death, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was a chemist by training, but he was also the first African American astronaut. Lawrence was born in Chicago in 1935. After graduating from Bradley University with a chemistry degree, he joined the United States Air Force, eventually becoming a test pilot.
Soon after, the Air Force selected him to become an astronaut to work on low-orbit intelligence missions. This program was the precursor to the NASA’s space shuttle program. During his training, Lawrence also got a PhD in physical chemistry from the Ohio State University.
Lawrence never made it into space. In 1967, he died during a training flight at Edwards Air Force Base. He had completed about 2,500 hours of flight time in his short career. Bradley University named a scholarship in Lawrence’s honor, and a school in Chicago was also named for him. On Feb. 14, 2020, a shuttle bearing Lawrence’s name embarked for the International Space Station, carrying, among other things, supplies for scientific research.
James Ellis Lu Valle was an Olympian and a chemist. During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Lu Valle won the bronze medal in the 400 m race. This was the Olympics in which Jesse Owens took home four gold medals while Adolf Hitler watched. That same year, Lu Valle earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Los Angeles. The university later named a student center after him, making Lu Valle the first student to have his name grace a UCLA building.
After earning a master’s degree from UCLA, Lu Valle pursued his PhD under the guidance of Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology. After teaching at Fisk University, a historically Black institution in Nashville, Tennessee, Lu Valle became the first Black person to work for Eastman Kodak. Later in his career, he became director of physical and chemical research at Smith-Corona Marchant in Palo Alto, California. When the company closed, Stanford University asked Lu Valle to lead the first-year chemistry lab, and he agreed, ending his career by returning to education and mentorship.
At the height of the Manhattan Project, Samuel P. Massie was trying to figure out how to turn uranium isotopes into liquids for use in a bomb. Before joining the project, he had gone to Iowa State University to get a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He was not allowed to live on campus or work in the same labs as white students. After being denied a draft deferment, he withdrew from the Ph.D. program and took a position working on nuclear chemistry for the Manhattan Project.
Massie eventually got his Ph.D. from Iowa State University and then worked on finding new antimicrobial compounds. In 1982, he patented an antibiotic for treating gonorrhea. In his career, he also focused on education—teaching chemistry and taking an appointment at the National Science Foundation to shape science education across the nation. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson chose him to teach chemistry at the US Naval Academy, making him the first Black person to do so. Many years later, he chaired the department, becoming the first Black person to hold that position.
Massie was always a high achiever, graduating high school at 13 and college at 18. One of his Manhattan Project contemporaries was another accomplished Black scientist named Lloyd Albert Quarterman. Massie died in 2005.
This story was updated on Sept. 29, 2020. to correct the positions held by Walter Lincoln Hawkins at Bell Laboratories.