Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Black Scientists: A History of Exclusion

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Black Scientists: A History of Exclusion

Article excerpt

Black Scientists: A History of Exclusion

The first African American to receive a doctoral degree in the United States was a scientist. Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918) was a native of New Haven, Connecticut, who graduated from Yale University's undergraduate school in 1874, and completed his Ph.D. in physics there in 1876.

Several years after graduation, Bouchet was elected into Phi Beta Kappa, becoming one of the honor society's first Black members. He spent most of his career sharing his knowledge with other African Americans as a secondary school science educator.

In the fifty-six years following Bouchet's graduation, only twelve other African Americans would earn Ph.D.s in the sciences.

Like most racial disparities in the U.S., the dearth of credentialed African American scientists is rooted in the nation's history of racial discrimination. It is difficult to fully comprehend why the current scarcity exists without briefly reviewing the history of African Americans in the sciences.

Early African American scientists have included people like Benjamin Banneker, whose almanac was heralded by Thomas Jefferson; George Washington Carver, the renowned biochemist; Garrett A. Morgan, inventor of the gas mask; and Granville T. Woods the electrical engineer who invented the third rail upon which many subway systems run. These systems run. These scientists had no doctoral training.

The existence of credentialed African American scientists in any significant number is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. In the first half of the century, however, even those who did achieve doctoral degrees often found it difficult to obtain jobs within White-dominated scientific institutions because of racial discrimination.

Overcoming Early Resistance

More than a half century after Bouchet's achievement, Dr. Hildrus A. "Gus" Poindexter became the first African American to receive both an M.D. -- which he earned at Harvard University in 1929 -- and a Ph.D. -- which he earned in bacteriology at Columbia University in 1932. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Poindexter, had earned his bachelor's degree at historically Black Lincoln University in 1924 before moving on to pre-medical studies at Dartmouth College and then to Harvard. Even after completing his Ph.D., Poindexter earned a master's degree in public health from Columbia in 1937.

The first doctoral degrees presented by Howard University, the nations' only historically Black research institution, were awarded in the field of chemistry to Dr. Harold Delaney and Dr. Bibhuti Mazumder in 1958. Today, Howard ranks number one among the ten leading institutions of baccalaureate origin for Black science and engineering doctorate recipients. In fact, six of these ten institutions are historically Black institutions (see chart page 16).

The first African American to become a member of the National Academy of Science, Dr. David H. Blackwell, was not elected into the society until 1965. Blackwell earned his doctoral degree in mathematics at the University of Illinois in 1941.

Even with these achievements, by 1972 a cumulative total of only 850 African Americans had earned science doctorates.

Examples of the types of resistance Black scientists have encountered are embodied in the experiences of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975), an organic chemist who completed his undergraduate study at DePauw University in 1920. Even though Julian had graduated at the top of his class, he was denied admission to Harvard graduate school the first time he applied.

Julian worked for two years at Fisk University, a historically Black institution, before applying to Harvard again. He was accepted the second time and completed his master's degree in one year, after Number of Doctorate Recipients by Citizenship, Race/Ethnicity and Field, 1996 which he worked for a short time as a researcher at Harvard. Julian then taught at historically Black West Virginia State College and Howard University before winning a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to pursue his doctoral studies. …

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