African Americans in the Sciences

views updated

African Americans in the Sciences


The story of black American participation in the sciences, in medicine, and in invention is like so much of African American history in the United States, a mixed tale of achievement and exclusion, of progress and denied opportunities. While black Americans achieved notable early success as inventors, their participation in science and medicine has been historically hampered by discrimination that has limited their access to many of the nation's best schools and science programs.

Individual excellence is a necessity for success in science and medicine, as it is in any endeavor. But these fields also typically require group efforts, whether in the form of laboratory assistance or peer review. During the 1800s, the common view among the majority population in America was that blacks were deficient in the mental faculties needed to succeed in science and medicine. Educational opportunities were denied to them, and many able individuals simply were not given the chance to train and succeed as doctors and scientists. Inventors, on the other hand, tend to work and act alone. For this reason, black inventors enjoyed relatively good success in the several decades immediately following the Civil War, a level of success that far exceeded that of their counterparts in science and medicine.

With one notable exception, the early breakthroughs made by black physicians came in the first half of the twentieth century, when they were practicing in all-black medical facilities. Black achievements in mathematics, science, and engineering, by contrast, have been more conspicuous during the second half of the twentieth century, as doors have been opened for the training of black scientists and as the attitudes of their white peers have become more receptive.


Black inventors flourished during the 1880s and 1890s, although several black Americans were noted much earlier for their inventions. Better known as a self-taught astronomer and mathematician, Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) is also credited with inventing a striking clock in 1752. Two of the earliest patent holders among black inventors were J. Hawkins and N. Rillieux (1806-1894). In 1845, Hawkins was awarded patent number 3,973 for his gridiron, while Rillieux received patent number 4,879 in 1846 for the development of an evaporating pan for refining sugar.

The black inventors who are most often cited made their contributions between 1880 and 1900. Indeed, black inventors were more conspicuous during those years than they are now, more than a hundred years later. Lacking formal academic training, they were not deterred by the negative attitudes of teachers who doubted the intellectual ability of the former slaves and their children.

Two of the most prolific inventors, in terms of their recorded patents, were Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) and Granville T. Wood (1856-1910). Born in Canada to a fugitive slave couple, McCoy invented numerous devices for automatically lubricating locomotive engines and other machinery. More than twenty-five patents were recorded for him between 1882 and 1892. A free-born Ohioan, Granville Woods (1856-1910) held at least twenty-five patents covering various electrical devices, all recorded between 1884 and 1903.

The 1890s also witnessed the medical achievements of Daniel Hale Williams (1856-1931). Williams founded Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1891 when he was denied the right to practice at other hospitals, and there, two years later, he became the first man to perform open-heart surgery when he repaired a knife wound. Like the black inventors who flourished at the same time and like the black physicians who would come after him, Williams was able to execute his idea in large part because his white peers did not impede him. Had he been on the staff of another hospital, he would probably have been denied the opportunity to attempt open-heart surgery.


Father Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910) became the first American black to earn a Ph.D. when the University of Louvain in Belgium conferred this degree on him in 1865. Although his degree was not in a scientific field, there are two aspects of his life that are relevant here. First, he was born near Macon, Georgia, during the time of slavery, and only by going abroad could he receive the advanced training that he sought. Second, no American university offered the Ph.D. degree in 1865. Father Healy, who served as president of Georgetown University from 1873 to 1883, was able to find employment that fit his academic qualifications in large part because of his religious affiliation. This was not a possible course for most of the early black scientists.

Edward A. Bouchet (1852-1918) became the first black to receive a Ph.D. degree in science in 1876, when Yale University granted him a doctorate in physics. He was also the first black American to be initiated into Phi Beta Kappa. In several respects, Bouchet was unlike most black scientists who earned the Ph.D. degree over the next fifty years: he was born in a northern city (New Haven, Connecticut) and received his bachelor's degree from Yale rather than one of the historically black colleges or universities. Furthermore, he did his graduate training in a physical, rather than a life or biological, science.

Unlike Father Healy, Bouchet was unable to obtain employment that matched his academic achievement. One might assume that, with a Ph.D. in physics from Yale, Bouchet would have found many doors open to him, but this was not the case. He held a federal civil service position in St. Louis, taught at a high school in Ohio, taught at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia for over twenty-five years, and served on the faculty of Bishop College in Texas. He is remembered by Yale University through the annual Bouchet Lecture and Prize.

By 1900, only one other black American had joined Bouchet in gaining a graduate degree in science. Most blacks lived in the racially segregated South at this time, and slavery had been abolished only thirty-five years earlier. The elementary and high school training of blacks took place in all-black schools that were staffed with teachers who had no science training to speak of, so it is understandable that few black scientists emerged during this period. However, two things occurred in the 1880s and 1890s that would have a positive impact in the early decades of the 1900s.


Most private black colleges were established in the decades before 1900. Not only did they provide college training, but many also had high school departments that assisted in the preparation of students for college. Because they were private, they were not restricted by state laws from hiring whites, and for this reason they were able to develop excellent faculties. With teachers who were themselves better prepared, the quality of the graduates from these institutions began to improve, and with an increased pool of better-trained college graduates, the numbers of blacks who entered scientific fields slowly began to increase during the first two decades of the 1900s.

During the first thirty years of this century, the historically black colleges and universities took the lead in the scientific training of black undergraduates. The first black American to receive a doctorate in chemistry (1916) was a graduate of Fisk University, and the second to receive a Ph.D. in physics (1918), following Bouchet, was also a Fisk alumnus. In fact, the private black institutions were the leading source of undergraduate training for black Americans in all fields of science until 1950, when the publicly supported black colleges and universities began to catch up.

The importance of this cannot be overestimated. Most black Americans were southerners, and black southerners were unable to attend the white colleges and universities of the segregated South. Without the training offered in the black colleges and universities, there would have been far fewer black scientists during those years.


During the first decades of the twentieth century, two black men in particular achieved distinction as scientists. Ernest E. Just (1833-1941), one of the best known of the black biological scientists, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1883. Rather than attend a black college in his native state, he went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he received his bachelor of science degree in 1907. After teaching for a time at Howard University, he took a doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1916 and rejoined the faculty of Howard University when he could not find employment elsewhere.

Just spent many summers pursuing research on marine invertebrates at the Woods Hole Marine Laboratory in Massachusetts. As a young instructor at Howard, he had met Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), then a prominent scientist at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, and the two became close friends. It was in fact Loeb who nominated Just for the first Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1914. However, in his later research at Woods Hole and his thesis research for the University of Chicago, Just began to question one of Loeb's widely held hypotheses about fertilization among marine invertebrates. Not only did he challenge his friend; during the years 1919-1920 he also disproved Loeb's hypothesis through careful experimentation. It was this work that established Just among marine embryologists, although, as one might imagine, it did not make him popular among Loeb's followers.

Like many black musicians of the time, Just went to Europe to pursue his work and found a warmer reception there for his research and ideas than he did in his own country. The last dozen or so years of his life were spent in Germany, France, and Italy. While most professional societies did not admit blacks to their membership in the 1920s, Just not only held memberships in several but was appointed to the editorial boards of three well-known journals. The success Just enjoyed in being admitted to professional societies was not shared by most black scientists, however. The all-black National Institute of Science was founded because blacks were not allowed to join in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Similarly, the National Medical Association and the National Dental Association were formed by black physicians and dentists respectively because the American Medical Association and the American Dental Association were closed to them.

Among black physicians and medical researchers during the early 1900s, William A. Hinton (1883-1959) stands out in several ways. He received a medical degree from Harvard in 1912 and became the first black member of the medical school faculty when he was appointed instructor in 1915. Hinton's medical accomplishments were in the area of syphilis diagnosis and treatment. His laboratory test for the detection of syphilis, the Hinton test, was the official method used by the Massachusetts Department of Health laboratories throughout the l920s and 1930s. Hinton was also the first black physician to publish a textbook (Syphilis and Its Treatment, 1936). He was offered the Spingarn Medal but declined because of his modesty. In 1953, he retired from Harvard with the title of emeritus professor.


Although black scientists in all disciplines encountered difficult circumstances in the first half of the twentieth century, without doubt the mathematicians faced the greatest challenges. As late as the 1950s, the Mathematical Association of America did not welcome blacks. Not until 1925 did a black American receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. This distinction is held by Elbert F. Cox, who earned his doctorate from Cornell in that year. The first black women to earn doctorates in mathematics were Evelyn Boyd Granville Collins (Yale, 1949) and Marjorie L. Browne (Michigan, 1949).

For blacks who wished to pursue advanced training in mathematics, the choice of a graduate school was crucial, for the prevailing view in some mathematics departments was that blacks did not have what it took to do Ph.D. work in mathematics. Those who did enter mathematics programs had to be very cautious about who they chose as their major professor. With the wrong professor, they might find themselves being nudged into mathematics education programs, advised to quit mathematics altogether, or simply washed out of the program. Unfortunately, this prejudice, along with a similar prejudice against women in the field, still exists even into the early 2000s on some campuses. Between 1925 and 1994, it is estimated that about two hundred black Americans earned Ph.D. degrees in mathematics, including about thirty women.

One of the most distinguished black mathematicians to emerge during this period was David H. Blackwell (b. 1919), a specialist in statistics and game theory. A native of Centralia, Illinois, Blackwell received his bachelor of science degree in 1938 and his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1941 from the University of Illinois, the latter when he was only twenty-two years old. He taught at several black colleges before going to the University of California at Berkeley. Blackwell became the first black mathematician to be admitted to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University in 1941, at a time when Princeton did not yet accept black students. (He was followed a year later by J. Ernest Wilkins, a black mathematician who received his Ph.D. at the age of nineteen from the University of Chicago.) In 1965, Blackwell became the first black member of the National Academy of Sciences, an honor that is second only to the Nobel Prize. In addition to a textbook on statistics, Blackwell published Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions (1980).

Like Ernest Just, the chemist Percy L. Julian (1899-1975) was born in the South (Montgomery, Alabama) but went northto DePauw University in Indianafor his college training. As was the case for a fair number of blacks during this period, Julian felt he needed to go abroad for his doctorate, which he received in 1931 from the University of Vienna. His alma mater, DePauw, would not hire him after he received the Ph.D., and although the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin, offered him a job, he was forced to turn it down because the city ordinances forbade "housing a Negro overnight. "Like most black scientists during this period, Julian taught for a while at black colleges, but he finally chose not to spend his years in academic jobs. A top-notch organic chemist, Julian landed employment with a chemical company, where he pioneered the development of several synthetic hormones. He was the first to effect the total synthesis of physostigmine, used in the treatment of glaucoma, and he also developed a low-cost method for synthesizing a form of cortisone. The holder of 105 patents, he later formed his own company, Julian Laboratories, near Chicago, and eventually sold it to a major pharmaceutical firm. Percy Julian was the second black to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences, after David Blackwell.


World War II had a dramatic impact on the lives of black Americans in general, and black scientists in particular. The search for employment in northern defense industries brought many black southerners north, while the GI Bill for veterans provided returning black soldiers with funds for educational training. Relatively large increases in the numbers of black Americans holding science doctorates occurred throughout the 1940s.

Black physicians and scientists also made significant contributions to their country's efforts in World War II. Among the physicians, Charles Drew (1904-1950) established himself as a world authority on the preservation of blood plasma, and he is now remembered as the father of the blood bankalthough it was the British government, not his own, that asked for his advice on preserving blood plasma. Many of the techniques and procedures developed by Drew and people working with him were adopted by medical communities both inside and outside of the military.

Hildrus A. Poindexter (1901-1979), who received his medical degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. in bacteriology from Columbia, was the only black tropical disease specialist on military duty during the war. When General Douglas MacArthur learned of Poindexter's expertise, he asked that Poindexter be assigned to his forces in the South Pacific. Following military service, Poindexter spent time in a number of foreign countries trying to combat tropical diseases of all types. His autobiography, My World of Reality, was published in 1972.

The Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, recruited the best scientists from around the country, among them at least two blacks, William J. Knox Jr. (1904-1995) and J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. (b. 1923). Knox, a chemist, was a section leader of the project at Columbia University from 1943 to 1945, while Wilkins, a mathematician and physicist, was a member of the project at the University of Chicago from 1944 to 1946.


The most important event to occur in the decades following World War II was the integration of educational institutions in the South and Southwest. The desegregation of schools formerly closed to black Americans, which began in the mid-1950s, should have had a noticeable impact on the number of blacks training in the sciences. However, the results were mixed.

In 1954, the University of Oklahoma became the first of these institutions to grant a Ph.D. to a black in a science field, followed a year later by the University of Texas at Austin. Significant improvements were also made in science education at the state-supported black colleges and universities. For this reason, and because they paid higher salaries than most of the private black institutions, they began to attract science faculty of high quality. During these years, public institutions such as Southern University, Tennessee State, and North Carolina A&T began to supplant Fisk and Morehouse as training grounds for young black scientists. The emergence of the black female scientist from the shadow of her male counterpart also occurred during the 1960s. However, in spite of the end of legal segregation in the sections of the country where most blacks resided, notable increases in the numbers of black scientists did not occur, and some reasons for this will be noted later in this essay.

During these decades, the major scientific and professional societies were not only opened to blacks, but some also elected blacks to various offices and journal positions. Harold E. Finley, a parasitologist at Howard University, served as vice president of the American Society of Protozoologists (1963-1964) and later as president (1966-1967), and in 1971 he was elected president of the American Microscopical Society. Paul B. Cornely (b. 1906) of Howard University was elected president of the American Public Health Association for 1969-1970. Samuel M. Nabrit (b. 1905), a zoologist and former president of Texas Southern University, was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1966.

One of the noted black scientists active during these two decades was the chemist W. Lincoln Hawkins (1911-1992). Hawkins grew up in Washington, D.C., and earned his Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal in 1938. From 1942 to 1976, he was employed by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where he was assistant director of the Chemical Research Laboratory at the time of his retirement. The holder of at least fourteen patents, Hawkins was the first black American elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He was the coinventor of a plastics process that extends the life of telephone cables for over fifty years.

Prior to the 1970s, about one-third of all doctorates awarded to black Americans were in chemistry, but in the 1970s notable changes began to occur.The number of blacks training as engineers increased, as did the number of black female scientists. In the early 2000s, of the hundred or so blacks awarded doctorates in math, science, or engineering each year, only about fifteen are chemists. Engineers account for ten to twelve doctorates each year, and these come at the expense of degrees in chemistry, while more than half of all black scientists continue to work in the fields of health and medicine and the life, biological, and agricultural sciences. Some "firsts" have occurred, however: Charles E. Anderson received his doctorate in meteorology from MIT in 1960, Benjamin F. Peery (b. 1922) a doctorate in astronomy from Michigan in 1962, and James C. Christopher a doctorate in geology from Ohio State in 1959.


Although some interesting milestones were achieved by black scientists and physicians during these years, they must be balanced with the disappointments. Among the bright spots have been the recognition of black scientists by their peers, as reflected in appointments to key positions and election to key offices in scientific societies. For example, the engineer John Slaughter (b. 1934) was named director of the National Science Foundation in 1980, and in 1991, the physicist Walter Massey was named to the same post. Massey (b. 1938) later became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Henry A. Hill (1915-1979) was elected president of the American Chemical Society in 1977, and several black physicians have served as president of the American Public Health Association.

Black scientists and physicians have also been involved in advances made by the U.S. space program during the 1980s and 1990s. Of the black astronauts who have flown missions, two are physicians, including a woman, and two are scientiststhe aerospace engineer Guion Bluford (b.1942) and the laser physicist Ronald McNair (1950-1986). (McNair was a crew member of the ill-fated Challenger mission of 1986.)

The first black member of the astronaut corps, the late Robert H. Lawrence Jr. was a scientist. He was born in Chicago in 1935, received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Ohio State University in 1965, and was admitted to the astronaut corps the same year. He died in 1967 from injuries suffered in an airplane crash. Among the scientists currently employed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the aeronautical engineer George R. Carruthers (b. 1939), who has designed a lunar-surface ultraviolet (UV) camera and spectrograph, space telescopes for the Apollo 16 mission, and various detectors for UV and other radiation.

The biggest disappointments during the 1990s have been the decrease in the number of blacks entering math, science, and engineering fields and the scarcity of black males in particular. With the legal barriers to college and graduate education long removed, one might presume that blacks would be knocking down the doors to enter these fields, but this is not the case. The largest number of doctorates awarded to American-born blacks in a single year was 130 in 1978. The last year that black males exceeded black females studying math, science, and engineering was 1979.

The year 1972 saw the first American-born black females earn the Ph.D. degree in physics and engineering, and in the late twentieth century around 60 percent of all black Americans earning doctorates in math, science, and engineering are women. Of all persons receiving doctorates in these areas from American universities in the 1990s who designate themselves as black, between 65 and 70 percent are foreign-born, with Nigerians accounting for nearly one half. Foreign-born students tend to pursue training in engineering and the physical sciences at much higher rates than their American-born counterparts. Why are these numbers, especially for black males, so dismal? And what might be done to turn the situation around?

To this writer, there does not appear to be any single or simple answer to these questions, but here are some of the factors that bear on the situation:

1. Lack of discipline: Success and excellence in science demand discipline, a quality which, as many have observed, modern youth seem to lack.

2. The lure of sports: It is often said that more black youngsters would pursue science careers if they could be assured the money and publicity awarded to professional athletes.

3. Poor attitudes: Some black students, at both the high school and college level, simply do not study much, believing they will get into college or graduate school or secure a job, whatever they do, simply because they are black. This "I'm black, so I'll get a chance" attitude does not work in science, which is neutral with respect to race, ethnicity, and gender.

4. Negative influences: These include academic counselors who steer blacks away from careers in science, as well as so-called friends and family members who discourage students from pursuing "white" fields instead of becoming a "real doctor" (physician), lawyer, or teacher. It should be noted here that American-born blacks earn doctorates in education at a much higher rate than any other ethnic group.

5. "Black English" and "black culture": Students who cannot function in Standard English are likely to have problems in any discipline that is written in English. The unwillingness or inability to correctly pronounce a technical word puts one at a distinct disadvantage, since the meaning of the word is often implicit in its correct pronunciation. The adherents of what is sometimes referred to as "being and speaking black" are sure to have a more difficult time in a scientific field.

6. Black role models: It is often said that more black students would enter science if they had black role models. With the end of racial segregation in schools, it is true that black students see relatively fewer black teachers. However, even in large northern cities, where the public school population, including teachers, is often more than 90 percent black, the public schools are not producing students who pursue careers in science.

Whatever the reasons for the fact that so few blacks elect careers in science, the prospects for the immediate future do not seem bright. In spite of interventionist efforts such as the Minority Biomedical Research Program and the Minority Access to Research Careers Program, both of which are funded by the National Institutes of Health, the number of American blacks earning doctorates each year in mathematics, science, and engineering will probably remain essentially unchanged into the early 2000s.

Up to and through the 1960s, the typical black scientist was a male born in a small town in a southern state, a graduate of one of the historically black colleges and universities, and more likely than not in a math, physical science, or engineering field. In the 1990s, this profile has changed. As the twenty-first century begins, the typical American-born black scientist is a female with a doctorate in a life, health, or medical science field who is not necessarily of southern origin and did not necessarily study at one of the black institutions. If the current trend continues, the typical black male scientist will be foreign-born, especially in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences.

The question is not whether more blacks can or should become scientists; it is, rather, why more do not.


Bedini, Silvio A. The Life of Benjamin Banneker. New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1972.

Black Achievers in Science. Chicago: Museum of Science and Industry, 1988.

Burt, McKinley. Black Inventors of America. Portland: National Book Co., 1969.

Carwell, Hattie. Blacks in Science: Astrophysicist to Zoologist. Hicksville: Exposition Press, 1977.

Driver, Paul J. Black Giants in Science. New York: Vantage Press, 1973.

Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.

Jay, James."Black Americans in the Sciences. "In Minorities in Science. Boston: Plenum Press, 1977.

Klein, Aaron E. Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971.

Manning, Kenneth R. Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

McKissack, Patricia, and Frederick McKissack. A Proud Heritage: African-American Inventors. Brookfield: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Newell, Virginia K., et al. Black Mathematicians and Their Works. Ardmore: Dorrance, 1980.

Poindexter, Hildrus A. My World of Reality. Detroit: Balamp Publishers, 1973.

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

Taylor, Julius H. The Negro in Science. Baltimore: Morgan State College Press, 1960.

Matthew Henson (1866-1955) and the Journey to the North Pole

On April 6, 1909, an American expedition became the first in history to reach the North Pole. The expedition was led by the we l l-known explorer Commander Robert E. Peary. At his side was Matthew Henson, an African American who had accompanied him on every one of his expeditions since 1888.

Born in Maryland in 1866, Matthew Henson began traveling at a young age, signing on as a cabin boy "on board a vessel bound for China. "Before the age of twenty, Henson had become an "able-bodied seaman" and world traveler. He met Peary in 1888, when Peary was at the beginning of his career as an explorer, and for the next twenty-three years, the two men traveled together. They undertook several Arctic expeditions during that time, finally reaching the North Pole in 1909. Henson recorded the details of their journey to the pole in his 1912 memoir A Negro Explorer to the North Pole.

Henson was a stirring role model for African Americans of his time. As the Negro explorer Herbert Frisby wrote,"Matthew Henson was the greatest hero in my life. "In his foreword to Henson's memoir, Booker T. Washington spoke of him as one who offered hope and encouragement to "a race which has come up from slavery."

ABOVE: The explorer Matthew Henson is shown here. Commander Robert E. Peary and Henson reached the pole on April 6. CORBIS-BETTMANN

About this article

African Americans in the Sciences

Updated About content Print Article


African Americans in the Sciences