Parsons, James A., Jr.

views updated

James A. Parsons, Jr.

Inventor, scientist, educator

James A. Parsons Jr. was a scientist, inventor, and university professor, whose research with rust resistant metals and iron alloys is credited with leading to the development of stainless steel. During his lifetime, he received several patents pertaining to metals for his achievements. Parsons was highly respected among his peers in the scientific community and widely regarded as one of the nation's leading metallurgists.

James Albert Parsons Jr. was born in Dayton, Ohio on May 30, 1900. His father was a butler in the home of an executive at the Duriron Company, a metals manufacturing firm. When Parsons was young, his extraordinary ability in mathematics came to the attention of his father's employer. Parsons attended Steele High School in Dayton and after graduating in 1917, turned down an opportunity to attend the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Instead, he took an interim job at the Duriron Company as foundry laborer and in 1918 began his undergraduate studies at the highly competitive Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Duriron provided Parsons with summer employment while he was in college. The 1922 Rensselaer yearbook describes Parsons as hard working, ambitious, and popular with his peers. His love of music gave him the nickname "Jazz," and his dormitory room was a hub for aficionados like himself. His was also known for his love of smoking a big black pipe and being generous with sharing his tobacco with friends. The yearbook notes that Parsons spent a lot of his spare time at the pool and was such a skillful and enthusiastic swimmer that some of his classmates call him "Fish Parsons." He studied electrochemistry and electrometallurgy while majoring in electrical engineering and was a member of the AIAA club.

After Renesselaer, Parsons returned to his hometown and was hired by Duriron in 1922 for the job of analyti-cal chemist, a position that was certainly more befitted to his credentials and intellect than foundry laborer. He worked with aluminum bronze and made a lasting contribution to the Aluminum Bronze Foundation. In 1927, Parsons won the prestigious Harmon Foundation award in science, the first of its kind, for the advances he made with rust-resistant or non-corrosive metals. His gold medal was presented by Orville Wright, one of Ohio's most famous sons, and Charles Kettering, an acclaimed engineer, gave the address for the event. During the early 1930s, Parsons continued to rise through the Duriron company ranks.

In 1935, Duriron had a reputation as the sole world manufacturer of specific kinds of non-corrosive metals. A 1939 article in the Journal of Negro Education mentions that the president of Duriron wrote Parsons a laudatory and appreciative letter praising his performance and his "valuable development work," as well as commending him for the patents the firm had been credited with because of Parsons' accomplishments. Citing Parsons' "executive ability," the letter indicated that he was not only superlative in his chosen field of electrical engineering but could hold his own in chemistry and metallurgy.

Between 1929 and 1949, Parsons received eight patents pertaining to the development and application of non-corrosive metals, which were credited to the Duriron Company. In 1929, he received Patent Number 1,728,360 on an iron alloy, and four years later he acquired Patent Number 1,819,479 for discovering a way to make silicon iron compounds. In 1934 and 1935, Parsons acquired Patents Number 1,912,103 and CA 348312 for inventing a process for treatment of silicon alloy castings. During the two-year span between 1938 and 1940, Parsons received three patents (2,134,670; 2,185,987; and 2,200,208) on corrosion-resisting ferrous alloy. Not one to rest on his laurels, he achieved Patent Number 2,318,011 on a cementation process for treating metals in 1943. Parsons was awarded his final patent, Number 2,467,288, in 1949 for a nickel-based alloy.

According to Margaret Peters, who interviewed Stevens and has written extensively about notable black Ohioans, six of the patents were issued solely to Parsons, one was issued to Parsons and Earl Ryder (2,318,011), and another was credited to Parsons and Guy Baker. All of the patents were assigned to the Duriron Company. Parsons' scientific achievements did not go unnoticed by the African American academic community. Wilberforce University, a historically black Ohio university, awarded Parsons an honorary doctorate of science at its June 1941 commencement.

In the 1940s, Parsons became the chief metallurgist and a laboratory manager at the Duriron Company. Parsons' department, which was comprised of an entirely African American staff with chemical expertise, researched aluminum bronze and tested treating iron and steel to be resistant to the corrosiveness of acids, such as sulphuric and hydrochloric. Parsons was so successful in discovering new measures for testing and protecting metals from corrosion that by 1950 he was widely recognized as one of the nation's leading scientists, an expert on rust-resistant metals.

Begins Teaching Career

In 1951 or 1952, Parsons retired from Duriron and made a transition from the corporate arena to academe. During the 1952–53 school year he accepted a faculty position in the Department of Metallurgy at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial University in Nashville, Tennessee, now known as Tennessee State University. During his thirteen years at the institution, Parsons served as chairman of the Department of Metallurgy and as acting dean of the College of Engineering. He resigned from the university during the 1966–67 school term. In an interview with the author, Professor Yvonne Y. Clark, a junior faculty member in the Metallurgy Department during the time of Parsons' tenure, praised him as a "brilliant man." His daughter, Ann Parsons Shipp, said in a letter to Homer Wheaton that he "thoroughly enjoyed his commitment to his students" and he cherished the time he spent training African American students to become engineers.


Born in Dayton, Ohio on May 30
Receives B.A. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; hired as analytical chemist by Duriron Company
Receives Harmon award in science
Receives first patent on an iron alloy
Receives eight patents pertaining to metals, which were assigned to the Duriron Corporation
Receives honorary doctorate of science from Wilberforce University
Serves as chief metallurgist and laboratory manager at Duriron and supervises all black lab department
Serves as professor in and later as chair of the Department of Metallurgy at Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial University in Nashville, Tennessee
Teaches at Ohio State University and Garfield Skills Center
Dies in Dayton, Ohio on March 4

After leaving Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial University, Parsons returned to his native Ohio. He later came out of retirement: he became an adjunct professor at Ohio State University where he taught until 1971 and also an instructor at the Garfield Skills Training Center. In fact, he continued to teach until he was 87. He was a member of Trinity United Presbyterian Church, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, and the Sigma Pi Phi fraternity Boulé. The highly selective Sigma Pi Phi is the oldest black fraternity in the United States. At the time of his death, on March 4, 1989, Parsons had been married to his wife, Blanche, for sixty-one years and the couple had two daughters and one son.

James A. Parsons was dedicated to excellence. His patents are a testament to his abilities to achieve beyond the ordinary in his chosen field. His career as a college professor shows his willingness to share his knowledge and skills with a future generation of engineers, scientists, and inventors.



Brawley, Benjamin. Negro Builders and Heroes. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Foster, Vera Chandler. Negro Year Book: A Review of Events Affecting Negro Life, 1941–1946. Tuskegee, Ala.: Dept. of Records and Research, Tuskegee Institute, 1947.

Henry, Deane, ed. The 1922 Transit: Yearbook of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Pittsfield, Mass.: Eagle PTG & BDG. Co., 1922.

Peters, Margaret. Dayton's African American Heritage: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach, Va.: Donning Company, 1975.

Sammons, Vivian Ovelton. Blacks in Science and Medicine. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1990.

Sluby, Patricia Carter. The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

The Tennessean: The Stage Is Set at Tennessee A & I University. Nashville: Bureau of Public Relations in cooperation with Department of Art, 1953.


Batz, Bob. "Area Black History: A Tale of Courage and Struggle." Dayton Daily News, 22 February 1994.

"Dr. James A. Parsons, Jr.: Inventor and Scientist (b. 1900)." Dayton Daily News, 26 February 2004.

Downing, Lewis K. "The Negro in the Professions of Engineering and Architecture." Journal of Negro Education 4 (January 1950): 135-149.

Drew, Charles Richard. "Negro Scholars in Scientific Research." Journal of Negro History 35 (April 1950): 135-49.

Haynes, George Edmund. "Negro Technicians in American Progress." Journal of Negro Education 8 (January 1939): 50-57.

Hundley, Wendy. "Matriarch of Black History Writing Book." Dayton Daily News, 5 February 1995.

"Migration to Dayton: The Story of Blacks in Dayton Dates Back to the City's Very Beginning." Dayton Daily News, 2 February 1996.

"Negro Scientists." Ebony (September 1950): 15-20.


Clark, Yvonne Y. Interview by author. 26 January 2005.

Email from Margaret Peters to Jonas Bender and Jacqueline Brown. 31 January 2005.

Letter from Ann Parsons Shipp to Homer Wheaton. 3 February 2005.

                                     Glenda M. Alvin

About this article

Parsons, James A., Jr.

Updated About content Print Article