DISTINGUISHED AFRICAN AMERICAN SCIENTISTS

OF THE 20TH CENTURY

James H. Kessler and others

Phoenix, Az., Axyx Press, 1996

 

     While most people can list without difficulty the names of eminent Black Americans in  politics and sports, in music and movies, in law and literature, they cannot with equal ease list the names of famous African Americans in physics or mathematics, in chemistry or medicine.

     And yet,   a great many Black Americans have worked actively and successfully in the various sciences as well. Many of them have achieved recognition and eminence in their  fields. All too often, their names are known only to a handful. Appropriately, they are not referred to and remembered as Blacks, but simply as scientists in the scientific community at large. However, given the unfortunate racial stereotypes and misperceptions, it is important that Black children and adults, as well as other Americans,  be told about them.

     The book under review serves this important purpose. It presents to the reader the lives and achievements of a hundred African Americans who have reached the highest academic levels in such diverse fields as anthropology and physics, mathematics and endocrinology, and more.

     The brief biographies are based on information gathered from a variety of sources including, in many cases, material provided by the subjects themselves. This is most valuable since we are able to see in the pages reflections of some of the personal struggles these outstanding individuals went through in order to accomplish hat they did.

     It is good that a young scientist like Mae C. Jemison who became the first African American (indeed the very first black) woman astronaut in included in the volume. Among the others who are listed are:   George Carruthers who developed a far UV camera/spectrograph which was used in the Apollo missions to the moon;   J. Ernest Wilkins who received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago when he was barely nineteen years old;  James Harris who played an active role in the synthesis of  Rutherfordium; Herman R. Branson, a co-worker of Linus Pauling, who contributed to the identification of the alpha and gamma helical structures of proteins; Meredith Gourdine,  the  Olympic medalist and engineering physicist who invented many things and established his own company. It should be recalled that already between 1870 and 1900, black inventors had more than four hundred patents to their names.

     There have also been many eminent black women in science. Angela Ferguson  who had to work in the  grade school cafetaria  to get her lunch, rose to become an eminent pediatrician, and served the cause of countless African American children. Evelyn Boyd Granville's father was a janitor in an apartment complex, but she managed to get her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale. When segregation was still the norm in the South, Marie Maynard Daly  received her doctorate from Columbia University (1947), becoming the first African American woman to get a Ph.D. in chemistry.    Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist,   did her doctoral work at MIT, and became the first Black woman to work in the exclusive European Center for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.

     It is important for Black men and women to know about these individuals,  not simply for the pride they bring to their hearts. Young children, both Black and White, should remember that many of the people mentioned in this book grew up under very  difficult economic constraints, social injustices and racial prejudices, with very little encouragement from the outside. But they were individuals with enormous determination, sterling character, and sense of self-worth who struggled under intolerable conditions. These men and women devoted themselves to serious study and intellectual pursuits. They knew there was racism and prejudice in the society in which they lived, but they did not use this as an excuse for keeping away from books or building their own grammar and vocabulary. They did not waste their time and energy feeling bitter about the system or attributing every inadequacy to the shameful  slavery era. Rather, they  took full advantage of what little  of the educational infra-structure of America was within their reach and achieved things for which they are now recognized and rewarded. They earned the respect  they deserved by hard work and determination. They brought credit to their people.

     This book also demonstrates that with all the evils of prejudice that still linger in our society, and even if there is much justification for the endless ranting against racism by demagogues and hate-mongers, America is still a land where one can struggle against  all odds and live up to one's fullest potentials. America too deserves some credit for making these achievements possible.

     There are thousands of Blacks who continue in the tradition of hard work and perseverance, but their stories are not brought to the attention of a wider public. Since the book limits itself to the twentieth century, men like Benjamin Banneker,  the self-taught black mathematician of the eighteenth century who studied astronomy and wrote an almanac based on his calculations, and Edward A. Bouchet, the first black Ph.D. in physics who graduated from Yale University in the late nineteenth century, are not even mentioned. Fortunately, George Washington Carver, who became one of the most eminent agricultural chemists of his time, synthesizing more than 300 industrial products from peanuts and sweet potatoes, has found a place here. Carver's biography should be compulsory reading to all children. This commendable book does not include many others: For example,  Clilian Powell who had an M.D. and was a specialist in x-ray physics, indeed one of the first radiologists; Lucey Craft Laney was not born free, but who graduated from Atlanta University as a nurse and established the Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, GA, and others.  

      All too often, our media focus on the failures, the pests, and the criminally inclined, rather than on those who accomplish and achieve. Black children should read about African American scientists, for their lives serve as beacons that can transform their own aims and aspirations.

     Science is a collective enterprise in which men and women of all races and creeds, all colors and nationalities work together towards common goals: to offer rational interpretations of the phenomenal world on the basis of careful observations, analyses and reasonable conjectures; and to utilize our knowledge for the betterment of the human condition. In so far as it is productive and successful science is blind to national and ethnic boundaries. Barring destructive historical upheavals, the science of the next century will be even more enlightened and inclusive, unaffected by the apartheid appeals of counter-science movements.

     More Black students must enroll in the sciences and in technical disciplines and become integral parts of the scientific community. For this they have countless role-models to draw inspiration from, and this book offers them many such.