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.
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