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Imes, Elmer Samuel


(b. Memphis, Tennessee, 12 October 1883; d. New York, New York, 11 September 1941),

physics, vibrational-rotational spectra, education.

Imes conducted the first high-precision experiments measuring the infrared spectrum of several diatomic molecules: HCl, HBr, and HF. This work provided experimental verification that both the rotational and vibrational energy levels of molecules are quantized. His detailed spectrum for HCl also provided the first direct evidence for the influence of different isotopes on the spectra of molecules.

Elmer Samuel Imes was the oldest of three male children born to Benjamin Albert Imes and Elizabeth Wallace. Elmer’s grandparents, Samuel and Sarah Moore Imes, were free blacks who lived as farmers in south-central Pennsylvania. His parents met while they were attending Oberlin College and married in 1880. The father obtained degrees from Oberlin College (1877) and Oberlin Seminary (1880). Both parents then became home missionaries for the Congregational Church. One of Elmer’s brothers, Albert Lovejoy, lived most of his adult life in Great Britain where he engaged in a variety of business ventures. The other, William Lloyd, became a very successful minister, theologian, and civil rights activist. William pastored integrated churches in the northeastern section of the country and was, at one time, the dean of the chapel at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Education and Early Career . Elmer Imes attended grammar school (c. 1889–1895) in Oberlin, Ohio, and high school in (c. 1895–1899) in Normal, Alabama. He entered Fisk University circa 1899 and graduated in 1903 with a BA degree. From 1904 to circa 1909, he taught mathematics and physics at Albany Normal Institute in Albany, Georgia. Realizing both the need and desire to obtain an advanced degree, Imes enrolled in the graduate program at Fisk University circa 1909 and completed MA degree requirements in 1910. He remained at Fisk until 1914. During this period he was involved in teaching general science and mathematics classes.

By 1914, Imes, having reached the limits of what could be achieved educationally at a “Negro” southern university, clearly understood that advancement to the next level of training could occur only if he were accepted at and attended one of the northern state universities. In 1915, he enrolled at the University of Michigan as a graduate student in the Department of Physics.

University of Michigan . After a year of probational study, Imes was selected as a graduate fellow in 1916, a position that he held until his graduation in 1918. He began his research under the direction of Harrison M. Randall (University of Michigan, MS 1884, PhD 1902) who had recently returned from Germany where he studied infrared spectroscopy in the laboratory of Friedrich Paschen at Tübingen University. Imes’s experimental work centered on the precise measurement of the rotational-vibrational spectra of a number of diatomic molecules. In 1919 he published essentially the full contents of his doctoral dissertation in a long paper in Astrophysical Journal. In 1920 Randall published a joint paper on additional work that he and Imes completed with regard to the three molecules HCl, HBr, and HF. These new results appeared in Physical Review and were presented at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in New York in 1920.

Imes’s stay at the University of Michigan was relatively calm, and available evidence shows that he earned the respect of both his teachers and fellow graduate students. William F. G. Swann of the Bartol Research Foundation of the Franklin Institute, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, states

It was the writer’s privilege to become acquainted with Professor Imes in his graduate student days at the University of Michigan, where his research laboratory was a mecca for those who sought an atmosphere of calm and contentment.… Imes could always be relied upon to bring to any discussion an atmosphere of philosophic soundness and levelheaded practicalness. (1941, p. 601)

In his last year at the university, Imes was initiated into Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, and later was listed in the sixth and several subsequent editions of American Men of Science. Imes was among the first African Americans to receive these recognitions.

Reactions to Imes’s Work . Diatomic molecules can both vibrate along the bond length and rotate about their center of gravity. Classical physics predicted that the spectra of these combined phenomena should consist of three rather sharp lines lying in the infrared region. However, early spectroscopic studies, starting in the nineteenth century and extending into the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, showed unexpected “band Spectra,” that is, very broad regions of absorption spread over two frequency intervals roughly consistent with the classical predictions. A number of theoretical explanations were constructed with their physical bases continuously modified as the foundations of physics made the transformation from a classical to a quantum world view. Several prominent theorists (T) and experimentalists (E) involved in this transformation did at least a portion of their work exploring molecular band spectra. According to a detailed study of this issue by Chiyoko Fujisaki (1983a), prior to 1916 such individuals included Eva V. Bahr (E), Niels Bjerrum (T), W. Burmeister (E), Paul Ehrenfest (T), Edwin C. Kemble (E, T), Walther Nernst (T), Lord Rayleigh (T), and Heinrich Rubens (E).

Some of these individuals attended the Solvay Conference held in Brussels from 30 October to 3 November 1911. This first in what would become a series of conferences was sponsored by industrialist Ernest Solvay at the behest of Nernst for the purpose of exploring quanta and radiation. During his final talk of the conference on “The Current Status of the Specific Heat Problem,” Albert Einstein raised the issue of spectra and the rotational frequency of molecules. A discussion ensued concerning methods for quantizing this particular degree of freedom. Einstein’s previous work on the specific heat of solids and its subsequent success had already paved the way toward acceptance that molecular vibrational energy was quantized.

During the period from 1911 to 1916, the data obtained from various experiments were confusing and in some cases contradictory. Some experiments showed broad bands, while others gave results with bands resolved into a series of separated lines. From a later point of view, the main reason for confusion and contradictions can be viewed as arising from differing resolutions of the spectrometers used by the various experimentalists. Whereas those who were utilizing what one would later call low resolution devices essentially observed two broad bands, those utilizing what one would later call high resolution devices observed structure to the absorption bands. Thus, the data obtained from the high resolution spectrometers gave direct, but not conclusive, evidence for quantization of rotational motion and additional confirmation for quantization of vibration behaviors for diatomic molecules. By 1914, these results were being applied to the calculation of the rotational contribution to the specific heats of solids and gases. A thorough discussion of this work and the major scientists involved is given in the review by Fujisaki (1983a, b). By 1916, there was general agreement that high-precision spectra were needed for diatomic molecules to both give the detailed structure of the band spectra and provide the data required for the formulation of an adequate theory of these phenomena. In 1916, under the direction of Randall at the University of Michigan, Imes began a course of studies that led to the design and construction of a series of infrared spectrometers of continuously increasing resolving powers. Imes used these instruments to measure the absorption bands for three hydrogen halides in the near infrared region: HCl, HBr, and HF. The final spectrometer, used for his most precise work, consisted of two spectrometers connected in tandem. The first was a prism spectrometer, while the second was a grating spectrometer. Imes’s most detailed work was done for HCl. For this molecule, he found two bands near 1.76 and 3.46 microns. (The band at 1.76 microns corresponds to the first overtone of the band at 3.46 microns. The nonlinearity of the force between the H and Cl atoms is indicated by 1.76 × 2 ≠ 3.46) His instrument was able to resolve the band at 3.46 microns into twelve pairs of peaks and the band at 1.76 microns into eight pairs of peaks. Imes used this design and construction of the spectrometer, and the measured data, as the basis for his dissertation. All these results appeared in Astrophysical Journal in an extended paper in 1919.

Imes’s measurements were immediately recognized by the scientific community as providing accurate experimental proof that rotational energy was also quantized, as was the case for molecular vibrational energy. The clear interpretation of his spectra was that superimposed on the spectral lines coming from the vibrational transitions of these diatomic molecules were peaks corresponding to transitions between various quantized rotational energy states.

A detailed theoretical interpretation of Imes’s spectra was soon completed by Adolf Kratzer (1920a) within the framework of the emerging quantum viewpoint. He used his theory and Imes’s data to calculate the bond lengths between the hydrogen and halogen atoms for HCl, HBr, and HI and found values consistent with previous estimates.

Imes’s data for HCl also indicated that each of the twelve peaks within the band located at 3.46 microns were themselves separated into two peaks (Imes and Randall, 1920). Both Kratzer (1920a) and F. Wheeler Loomis (1920) gave compelling theoretical arguments that this doublet substructure was a consequence of chlorine having isotopes of mass numbers 35 and 37. This means that HCl35 and HCl37 have slightly different locations for their absorption lines. An assessment of Imes’s work is provided by Earle Plyler:

Up until the work of Imes, there was doubt about the universal applicability of the quantum theory to radiation in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some held it was useful only for atomic spectra (electronic spectra); some held that it was applicable for all electromagnetic radiation. Ames’s high resolution work on Hal, Her and HF was the first clear cut experimental verification of the latter hypothesis, namely, that the rotational energy levels of molecules are quintile as well as the vibration and electronic levels. Thus, Imes’s work formed a turning point in the scientific thinking, making it clear that quantum theory was not just a novelty, useful in limiting fields of physics, but, of widespread and general application. (Plyler, 1974)

Although Plyler’s assessment may be an exaggeration in giving sole credit to Imes, his work certainly made important contributions toward widespread acceptance of the new quantum theory.

The New York Years . After receiving his PhD in physics from the University of Michigan, Imes spent four years in New York City (1918–1922) where he was self-employed as a consulting physicist. A major reason for moving to New York was the lack of employment opportunities for an African American having advanced education in most regions of the country. Even locations such as Boston were generally hostile to blacks. Another reason was that New York was becoming the mecca for African Americans in various fields of the arts, literature, entertainment, and political theory and practice, and the center of the contemporary civil rights movement. The time period from about 1919 to 1930 is historically referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. It was in this environment that Imes met Nella Larsen. The two married on 3 May 1919.

Larsen was an active member of the Harlem Renaissance who would eventually write two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929). Both Imes and Larsen had overlapping interests in various scholarly, literary, and political subjects. Thus, as members of the “Negro elite,” they had ready access to and associated with many other members of the Harlem Renaissance movement such as

W. E. B. Du Bois, Arna Bontemps, Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, and Walter White. When Imes later returned to Fisk University, many of these individuals would become connected to that institution either by joining the faculty or by exerting influence on its academic and teaching philosophy.

During the years 1922 to 1930, Imes was employed at three engineering-based firms in the New York metropolitan area: Federal Engineers Development Corporation (1922–1924), Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation (1924–1927), and E. A. Evert Signal Supplies (1927–1930). His official title was research physicist or research engineer. Imes’s research and development work led to the issuance of four patents. These patents were for devices or techniques for improving the measurement of magnetic properties of various materials.

By 1929, Imes had grown restless. Although he had regular employment and participated in the social, cultural, and political activities of the Harlem Renaissance, all of this was not to his satisfaction. He wanted to return to a more academic setting. The opportunity to do so occurred when he was invited to organize a formal program of physics education and research at Fisk University. He accepted the offer and returned to his alma mater in 1930 as chair of the Physics Department. His wife did not accompany him to Nashville.

Fisk University . Imes had two major tasks to complete upon his return to Fisk. The first was to create a set of upper-level physics courses suitable for BA and MS degree programs. The second was to recruit students to enroll in these programs. He succeeded with both efforts. In the graduating class of 1935, he had three students who finished Fisk with BA degrees in physics and entered the graduate physics program at the University of Michigan. Of the three, one eventually received a doctorate (James Raymond Lawson), one an MS degree (Lewis Clark), and the third dropped out of the program.

Both undergraduate and graduate students were involved in research. The areas selected were topics related to x-rays and magnetics. These two fields were directly related to Imes’s work as a research engineer/physicist in New York. To enhance the students’ knowledge in these areas, he arranged for them to study at the University of Michigan during the summer to master the subject of x-rays and various techniques needed for their use in his research projects. He also returned to the University of Michigan on several occasions to carry out experimental research on the fine structure of the infrared rotational spectrum of acetylene (C2 H2). Other work related to magnetic materials was done as summer research at New York University. None of these research efforts resulted in formal scientific publications.

Imes belonged to several professional research organizations: the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and the American Society for Testing and Materials. Because of Jim Crow laws then in place, he was able to attend meetings of these societies only when they met in the northern region of the country or in Canada.

Imes knew many on the Fisk faculty from associations formed when he lived in New York. Also, the Imes family name was well known within the elite, educated African American population, and his wife’s fame as a writer was of great value in forming other connections at the university, particularly among the nonscience faculty. In addition to constructing a curriculum for the physics program, he was also asked by the administration to help with the design of a new science building. This effort led to correspondence with other researchers, equipment designers, and manufacturers. Imes was also in charge of the film equipment and used this knowledge to aid various university clubs when a need for this equipment arose. One of the tasks that he especially enjoyed was the planning and execution of the Fisk University Annual Spring Arts Festival. This event brought to campus persons in the studio and performing arts, literature, and the sciences. Many of these individuals were of international renown and their presence and performances had great appeal to the wider Nashville community.

Imes had received a superior “classical” education as an undergraduate student at Fisk. His studies included four languages (French, Greek, Latin, and Spanish), along with separate courses in chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics. Other courses covered English literature, ethics, sociology, and logic. Now as a professor at Fisk, he wanted to provide the full academic community a broad knowledge of the nature of science, how it could be applied, and its influence on general issues of importance to society. To this end, he developed a course, Cultural Physics, and wrote a book-length manuscript detailing his thoughts on these topics. He used these materials as a course text for one of the general science requirements. He also had another reason for creating this course, namely, continuing the longstanding debate over the issues as to what should be the primary focus of Negro higher education, that is, vocational training versus liberal arts. Fisk University had its genesis in the liberal arts tradition and all of Imes’s close associates agreed with this direction for their efforts in education.

Nella Larsen divorced Imes in 1933. They had not lived together for any extended period since 1930. Larsen had no desire to live in the segregated south. She also wanted to remain in the New York metropolitan area where most of her friends and literary colleagues lived and where she felt her writing career would prosper. Her basis for divorce was on the legal grounds of cruelty. However, a much more dramatic reason was hinted at in a front-page story that appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper (7 October 1933). This article suggested that Imes was involved in an affair “with a white member of the Fisk University’s administrative staff.”

Scientific Legacy . Throughout his life and his career in science and education, Imes was held in high regard by his many friends and colleagues. His experimental work was immediately understood and interpreted as providing detailed experimental proof that rotational energy states were quantized just as was the case for the vibrational motions of molecules. Imes’s Astrophysics Journal paper was highly cited in the research literature for more than a decade and reproductions of his measured vibrational-rotational spectrum for HCl were placed in textbooks and research monographs. While Imes did not carry out additional research in the field of infrared spectroscopy, he was clearly recognized as a major figure among the small group of spectroscopists who measured with high precision diatomic spectra during the period 1916–1923.

On 11 September 1941, after a long battle with cancer, Imes died in New York City. His longtime friend and colleague, William Francis Gray Swann, wrote an obituary for the journal Science. He stated:

In the death of … Imes science loses a valuable physicist, an inspiring personality and a man cultured in many fields.… In his passing, his many friends mourn the loss of a distinguished scholar and a fine gentleman. (pp. 600–601)


Imes’s papers are located at Fisk University Library Special Collections; the Carl Van Vechten Personal Collection, New York Public Library; and the James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University.


“Measurements on the Near Infra-Red Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases.” Astrophysical Journal 50 (1919): 251–276.

With Harrison McAllister Randall. “The Fine-Structure of the Near Infra-red Absorption Bands of the Gases HCl, HB, and HF.” Physical Review 15 (1920): 152–155.

“Cultural Physics.” Book manuscript, Fisk University Library, Special Collections, c. 1935.


Barr, E. Scott. “Historical Survey of the Early Development of the Infrared Spectral Region.” American Journal of Physics 28 (1960): 42–54.

Davis, Thadious M. Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. This excellent biography of Larsen provides the best available assessment of Imes’s life outside of his scientific activities.

Fujisaki, Chiyoko. “From Deslandres to Kratzer (I): Development of the Understanding of the Origin of Infrared Band Spectra (1880–1910).” Historia Scientiarum 24 (1983a): 53–75.

———. “From Deslandres to Kratzer (II): Development of the Understanding of the Origin of Infrared Band Spectra (1913–1920).” Historia Scientiarum 25 (1983b): 57–86. An excellent overview of Imes’s work and its significance is given in Section IX.

Herzberg, Gerhard. Molecular Spectra and Molecular Structure: I. Spectra of Diatomic Molecules. 2nd ed. New York: D. van Nostrand, 1950.

Kratzer, Adolf. “Die Ultraroten Rotationsspektren der Halogen-Wasserstoff.” Zeitschrift für Physik 3, no. 5 (1920a): 289–307.

———. “Eine Spektroskopische Bestatigung der Isotopen Chlor.” Zeitschrift für Physik 3, no. 5 (1920b): 460–465.

Loomis, F. Wheeler. “Infrared Spectra of Isotopes.” Astrophysical Journal 52 (1920): 248–256.

Plyler, Earle. “The Influence of Elmer S. Imes.” Notes taken by Professor Nelson Fuson (16 August 1974) on a symposium talk by Dr. Earle Plyler (Professor Emeritus of Physics, Florida State University) at the Fisk Infrared Institute’s 25th Anniversary Celebration. Copy in Fisk University Library, Special Collections.

Ruark, Arthur Edward, and Harold Clayton Urey. Atoms, Molecules and Quanta. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1930.

Swann, William F. G. “Elmer Samuel Imes.” Science 94 (1941): 600–601. An obituary.

Ronald E. Mickens

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Imes, Elmer Samuel 1883–1941

Elmer Samuel Imes 18831941


Background Led to Drive for Education

Became an Internationally-Recognized Physicist

Married Novelist Nella Larsen

Returned to Fisk

Devoted Himself to Research and Teaching

Selected writings


Elmer Samuel Imes was the second black American to earn a Ph.D. in physics and the first black scientist to make important contributions to modern physics. He was the first to apply infrared spectroscopy to quantum theory. His two scientific publications established his international reputation and inaugurated a new field of researchthe use of high-resolution infrared spectroscopy for studying molecular structure. Imes was a well-known figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and he played an important role in the academic development of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Background Led to Drive for Education

Born on October 12, 1883, in Memphis, Tennessee, Imes was the oldest son of Elizabeth Wallace and Benjamin Albert Imes, both college-educated home missionaries. His father was descended from free black farmers of south-central Pennsylvania who had fought in the Union Army. His mother was born into slavery in Natchez, Mississippi, and had been brought to Oberlin, Ohio, as a child. His parents met as students at Oberlin College. Benjamin Imes graduated from Oberlin in 1877 and earned a divinity degree from the Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1880. He became one of the first members of the American Missionary Association (AMA) to undertake educational and religious work among former slaves in the southern states. Elmer Imes attended grammar school in Oberlin until about 1895, when he transferred to the Agricultural and Mechanical High School in Normal, Alabama, so as to be closer to his family. Benjamin Imes tutored his sons in the classics to help prepare them for college. Elmer Imes entered Fisk in 1899, earning his B.A. in science in 1903.

After graduation Imes taught mathematics and physics at AMA schools, primarily the Albany Normal Institute in Albany, Georgia, and the Emerson Institute in Mobile, Alabama. With his fathers death in 1908, Imes assumed financial responsibility for his mother, who was director of the teachers residence of the Industrial Missionary Associations school in Beloit, Alabama. Although he had inherited his fathers dedication to the home mission movement, Imes uncle, Dr. Thomas Creigh Imes, a physician in Philadelphia, encouraged him to become a scientist.

In 1910 Imes returned to Fisk as a science and math instructor and began working toward his masters degree in science, which he received in 1915. He then entered a Ph.D. program in physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After his first year he received a graduate fellowship to complete his studies. At Michigan Imes worked with Harrison McAllister Randall who had just returned from studying the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum with Friedrich Paschen at Tübingen University in Germany. Randall and his students began building new infrared spectrometers with more resolving power and more sensitive detectors than earlier models. Imes became Randalls star student and the first American black to earn a Ph.D. in physics since Edward Bouchet at Yale University in 1876.

At a Glance

Born Elmer Samuel Imes on October 12, 1883, in Memphis, TN; died on September 11, 1941, in New York, NY; son of Elizabeth Wallace and Benjamin Albert Imes; married Nella Larsen, 1919 {divorced 1933). Education: Fisk University, BA, 1903, MA, 1910; University of Michigan, PhD, physics, 1918.

Career: AMA schools, math and physics teacher, 1903-10; Fisk University, math and science instructor, 1910-15, physics professor and department head, 1930-41; New York City government, consulting physicist, 1918-22; Federal Engineers Development Corporation, research physicist, 1922-24; Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation, research physicist, 1924-27; E.A. Everett Signal Supplies, research engineer, 1927-30.

Memberships: American Institute of Electrical Engineers; American Physical Society; American Society for Testing Materials; Sigma Pi Phi; Sigma Xi.

Awards: University of Michigan, graduate fellowship, 1916-18.

Became an Internationally-Recognized Physicist

Imes research focused on the infrared spectrum of diatomic gases such as hydrogen bromide (HBr), hydrogen chloride (HCl), and hydrogen fluoride (HF). His Ph.D. thesis, completed in 1918, was published in the Astrophysical Journal. It demonstrated for the first time that quantum theory could be applied to radiation in all regions of the electromagnetic spectrum and to the rotational energy levels of molecules, as well as to the vibrational and electronic levels. His detailed spectra of simple gas molecules provided important verification of quantum theory and the first accurate determination of the distance between atoms in a molecule. Furthermore his experimental results provided some of the first evidence for the existence of nuclear isotopes, since his absorption band for HCl at 1.76 microns revealed a doublet structure, suggesting the presence of two chlorine isotopes.

As the first application of high-resolution infrared spectroscopy to the study of molecular structure, Imes work was an important contribution to atomic physics. The significance of his discoveries was recognized immediately by quantum physicists. Over the next 20 years, his work was cited repeatedly and, within a short time, had been incorporated into physics textbooks. Imes also was credited with major improvements to infrared spectrometers. James G. Spady, in his essay Black-space, quoted the engineer Frederick S. Simmons: In regards to Dr. Imes thesis work on HF vibration-rotation, it certainly does qualify as a pioneer effort. The consequences of his work are important today in two areas of technical concern; thermal radiation from rocket engines using fluorine compounds as oxidizers, and radiation from chemical lasers based on hydrogen-fluorine reactions.

Despite the significance of Imes scientific work, the only academic positions available to him were at southern black colleges that lacked graduate programs. Therefore he went to work as a consulting physicist in the New York City area. In 1922 he took a position as a research physicist with the Federal Engineers Development Corporation, moving to the Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation in 1924. In 1927 he began working as a research engineer at E.A. Everett Signal Supplies. Over the years Imes industrial work resulted in four patents for measuring the magnetic and electrical properties of materials and constructing instruments to make such measurements. However, the patents prevented him from publishing his research and garnered him few financial rewards.

Married Novelist Nella Larsen

During his lifetime Imes may have been better known in Europe than in the United States. Today he may be better known as the husband of Nella Larsen, a rediscovered writer of the Harlem Renaissance, than as a physicist. Having devoted most of his life to teaching, studying, and research, upon moving to New York, Imes became actively involved in society for the first time. Larsen was the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black father. When her mother remarried and had another daughter, Larsen became alienated from her all-white family. She met Imes when she was working with the Circle for Negro War Relief, whose board of directors included some of his influential friends. The couple was married on May 3, 1919, in the chapel of New Yorks Union Theological Seminary, by Imes brother William.

The Imeses lived first on Staten Island, then relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1921. They moved again to Harlem in 1927. Throughout these years they were at the center of the elite intellectual, artistic, and political society of Harlem that included individuals such as W. E. B. DuBois and Langston Hughes.

Although Larsen was a nurse by training, in 1921 she left her position with the New York Health Department to work as a librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Larsens first publications, descriptions of Danish games in a magazine for black children, appeared in 1920 under the name Nella Larsen Imes. In 1926 she published her first two adult short stories under the pseudonym Allen Semi, an anagram of her name. Larsens first semi-autobiographical novel, Quicksand, was published in 1928 under her maiden name. Her second novel, Passing, appeared the following year. Imes work often took him away to Ann Arbor and Montreal and the couple grew estranged. By 1928 Larsen knew that Imes was seeing a white woman named Ethel Gilbert.

Returned to Fisk

Dissatisfied with his most recent industrial position, and with the onset of the Great Depression increasing his financial woes, Imes began negotiating with the University of Michigan and Fisk. There were few opportunities for a black scientist to advance in industry and academia would provide better access to equipment and research collaborations. Fisk was in the process of expanding its academic departments and in 1930 Imes returned to Nashville as professor and chairman of an essentially one-person physics department. He began to reorganize the undergraduate physics curriculum and to prepare for a full graduate physics program focused on infrared spectroscopy. In 1931 Imes was named one of the thirteen most gifted American blacks.

Several of Imes Harlem compatriots joined him on the Fisk faculty or were otherwise closely connected with the university. Ethel Gilbert had become the director of public relations and managed the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers, who were an important source of revenue for the university. She and Imes became constant companions. Meanwhile, in 1930, Larsen became the first black woman to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and she spent the year in southern Europe. Upon Larsens return, the Fisk administration, concerned about Imes behavior, offered to build them a home on campus if Larsen would rejoin her husband. She agreed and moved to Nashville, into a lovely home complete with a cook and maid.

However, their marriage could not be saved. Larsen returned to New York after only a few months, divorcing Imes in 1933, in what became a nationally-publicized scandal. Ethel Gilbert was forced to resign her position at Fisk. The breakup of Larsens marriage, allegations that she had plagiarized her short story Sanctuary, and her publishers rejections of her subsequent novels, threw Larsen into a depression that lasted several years. She got by on her alimony from Imes until about the time of his death, when she returned to a successful nursing career. She continued to call herself Mrs. Nella L. Imes until her death in 1964. Elmer Imes gave up his house following the divorce and moved with his ailing mother into Ethel Gilberts former apartment. His salary had been cut by ten percent the previous year and he never recovered financially from the terms of the divorce settlement. It is unclear as to whether he married Ethel Gilbert and later divorced her.

Devoted Himself to Research and Teaching

Although he never published another scientific paper, Imes conducted research with his Fisk students, using x-rays and magnetism to study the detailed structure of the infrared rotational spectrum of acetylene and other materials. He spent several summers on infrared spectroscopy research at the University of Michigan and by 1939 he was experimenting with magnetic materials in the Physics Department of New York University. He engaged in extensive correspondence with other researchers, as well as with equipment designers and manufacturers. Several of his students went on to graduate studies in physics at the University of Michigan.

Imes was very active in both academics and campus social life. He developed a course called Cultural Physics, to introduce his friends and colleagues, as well as Fisk students, to general scientific topics, and he wrote a book-length manuscript on the history of science for use in the course. He also was instrumental in planning and designing the new Fisk science building. Imes operated the film equipment for various campus clubs, helped with the Annual Spring Arts Festival, and served on scholarship and disciplinary committees.

While at the University of Michigan, Imes was elected to Sigma Xi, the national honor society for scientific research. He was active in the American Physical Society, the American Society for Testing Materials, and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. However, Imes refused to attend national meetings held in segregated southern states.

Imes died of metastasized throat cancer at Memorial Hospital in New York City on September 11, 1941. His survivors included his mother and two younger brothers, Albert Lovejoy Imes and the Reverend William Lloyd Imes. The latter was pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in New York City and held degrees from Fisk, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He had a distinguished career fighting segregation and racial discrimination with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Elmer Imes left the bulk of his estate to Ethel Gilbert. Imes papers are in the Carl Van Vechten Personal Collection at the New York Public Library, in the James Weldon Johnson Collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and in collections at Fisk University. His residence at Fisk became an historic building and the National Conference of Black Physics Students bestows the Elmer Imes Award.

As Imes colleague, the research physicist and engineer W. F. G. Swann, wrote in his Science obituary: his research laboratory was a mecca for those who sought an atmosphere of calm and contentment. Peacefully smoking his pipe, Imes could always be relied upon to bring to any discussion an atmosphere of philosophic soundness and levelheaded practicalness. Gifted, moreover, with a poetic disposition, he was widely read in literature, and a discriminating and ardent appreciator of music. He had a delightful sense of humor and a skill in repartee, which he always used, however, with the kindliness and consideration so characteristic of his sensitive nature.

Selected writings

Measurements on the Near Infra-Red Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases, Astrophysical Journal, 1919.

(With Harrison McAllister Randall) The Fine-Structure of the Near Infra-Red Absorption Bands of the Gasses HCl, HBr, and HF, Physical Review, 1920.



The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen, Anchor Books, 2001, pp. xi-xxii.

Davis, Thadious M., Nella Larsen: Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Larson, Charles R., Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen, University of Iowa Press, 1993.

Mickens, Ronald E., ed. by Ronald E. Mickens, The African American Presence in Physics, National Society of Black Physicists, 1999, pp. 20-28.

Spady, James G., ed. by Ivan Van Sertima, Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern, Transaction Books, 1984, pp. 258-265.


LSA Magazine (University of Michigan), Fall 1988, pp. 10-16.

Science, 1941, pp. 600-601.


Elmer Samuel Imes, Physicists of the African Diaspo ra, (April 14, 2003).

Margaret Alic

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