Open-access: ACS honors African American chemists for Black History Month

The ACS celebrates the rich history of African American contributions to the chemical sciences. Click on the graphic to go to the feature page.

In the United States, the month of February is known as Black History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of African Americans to all facets of our lives. The ACS has done an absolutely wonderful job in offering an open-access feature on eleven of the most noteworthy Black chemists from across American history.

The stories of these remarkable individuals span from New Orleans chemist Norbert Rilleaux and his industrial evaporation process for sugar refining to Marie Maynard Daly, the first African American woman Ph.D. in chemistry, then all the way up to our first two African American presidents of the American Chemical Society.

The individual entries are accompanied by other ACS-associated resources such as the National Historic Chemical Landmark program – where the work of three of the featured chemists is honored – and biographies put together by the ACS-affiliated Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia who I spoke of last week.

For science educators, whether at K-12 or university level, these biographies are fabulous for helping students appreciate just how rich the field of chemistry is with African American contributions. In all of these cases, these outstanding investigators had to overcome great obstacles to their success, societal and financial.

However, we should all celebrate these remarkable individuals for their contributions to our rich history – regardless of their individual heritage. The eleven chemists represented in this feature are timeless giants in the field.

In my field of natural products, the chemist Percy Julian is revered – and his story was elegantly portrayed in the PBS NOVA documentary, Forgotten Genius. Julian is perhaps best known for his original work on the synthesis of the cholinesterase inhibitor, physostigmine, for glaucoma and the search for cortisone precursors to treat the most debilitating forms of rheumatoid arthritis.

My only criticism of this feature is that the lack of a twelfth block on the graphic above is rather glaring – as is the presence of only one woman. Does this mean that there was difficulty in identifying one more Black chemist of similar stature? If so, we – I mean all of us in chemistry and chemistry education – need to do a better job in providing equal opportunities to African American chemistry students and those of other traditionally marginalized groups.

This is otherwise a tremendous resource – make sure you peruse it to see how you might best use this information in your own teaching or personal appreciation for the history of the discipline.

Author: David Kroll

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6 Comments

  1. Looking from the lack of color photographs, they had to dig deep in US history to find black chemists. That is kinda sad…

  2. Totally agree that the vacant space (12th block) does not look great. Unfortunately, my mind is blank over who should fill it.

  3. If you haven’t seen it already, it’s worth noting the very inspiring and readable story of the Knox brothers published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and recently documented in Science. As the article says, “That one family should produce almost 7% of all black Ph.D. chemists over a 25-year period is remarkable—especially a family with its roots in the slave-holding South.”

    http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/magazine/articles/28-2-chemical-relations.aspx
    http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2011_01_14/caredit.a1100004

    The Knoxes got their PhDs at MIT and Harvard and went on to make important contributions to organic chemistry at a time when discrimination was still rampant. I am surprised the ACS did not include them.

  4. @Curious Wavefunction – Wow! Thank you so much for bringing up the Knox brothers – especially the brand-new Science article by Weininger and Gortler. Their story certainly sounds like the 12th (and 13th) block. I’ll have to go through the links to make this a separate post. Thanks so much.

    But as Egon wrote, these would be another group of chemists in old B&W photos.

    Who wants to drop into the comments their suggestions for current, outstanding chemists of African American heritage?

  5. In a sense making that last block empty prompts us to think about the lack of representation of blacks in academia in a way that we wouldn’t if they’d filled it.

    Even twelve black chemists would have been an embarrassment, but we wouldn’t have been prompted to think about that embarrassment if it hadn’t stood out graphically.

    Or perhaps they really just couldn’t think of a twelfth person …

  6. This is really a good resource. The numbers of African American chemists are small, but there are others that I can think of–Isiah Warner, Bill Jackson, Greg Robinson, Malika Jeffries-El, John Harkless, Valerie Ashby, James Mack, etc.

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