AFRICAN AMERICAN SCIENTISTS
THE 20TH CENTURY
H. Kessler and others
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
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
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