Oxford AASC: Guest Scholar

Guest Scholar

Jeannette Brown is a retired research chemist, having most recently worked as a researcher at Merck Research Laboratories and with the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In the essay below, Dr. Brown discusses her latest effort to bring the pioneers of science to a wider audience.

African American Women Chemists

African American Women Chemists is a brief history—combining scholarly research and oral testimonies—of the lives of the women who excelled in the field of chemistry long before other African American women or even men had decided on such a career. It speaks of the motivation of these pioneers for their race, even though many did not see themselves as activists or heroes, but merely as scientists.

My goal was not to simply summarize the accomplishments of these trailblazers, but to also show the context in which they achieved success, one which often undermined the contributions of women and people of color. Many came of age in the Jim Crow South, and had to overcome enormous economic and social obstacles before even reaching the classroom or the laboratory. Moreover, I intended to explore the relationship between feminism and science. Even today, with all of the technological achievements that have created the modern world, the field of science is not as representative of the global population as it could be. And yet, it has always depended on new perspectives in order to advance. It is my hope that my work here can serve as a springboard for more research in the area of minority women in science, and to encourage more leaders in the field to serve as mentors. As I will show in my essay here, mentors and role models have been key to the success of all of the women I chose to profile.

Early Pioneers

The women chemists that I focused on considered themselves to be ordinary people who chose to pursue the profession of chemistry before it was open to all people regardless of race. Some of the women in the book grew up in the North where de facto discrimination against black people was in many ways just as detrimental as that found in the former Confederacy. Most were the children of middle class, free black families.

Josephine Silone Yates was the earliest woman chemist that I could find. Recruited to be a professor of chemistry in 1880 in the department of science at Lincoln University (Jefferson City, Missouri), she may have been the first black woman to become a full professor in the field. Yates was thereafter appointed head of the chemistry department, a position she held until 1889. A woman of many interests, she was very well-read, fluent in both French and German and knowledgeable of Russian Literature. She even wrote newspaper articles under the pen name R. K. Porter. She apparently suffered gender discrimination when she started a family, since she was no longer allowed to teach at Lincoln University after getting married (a common practice at the time). Along with my summary, a full story of her life is available through the Kansas City Public Library.

Another early pioneer woman chemist was Alice Augusta Ball. Since she was the granddaughter of a famous black photographer, James Presley Ball, her family was middle class, and she earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington. She was fair-skinned, and may not have suffered much discrimination in college. Moreover, for her graduate work she chose to go to the University of Hawaii, possibly in part because of its diverse student population. During her short life she developed a drug for leprosy, but nearly did not get the credit she deserved. Instead, her supervisor initially claimed to have made the breakthrough. When she died at a young age shortly thereafter, her death certificate misrepresented her race, possibly on orders from her surviving relatives. It took two researchers in Hawaii—Dr Katheryn Takara and Stanley Alli—to discover her real story.

While these two examples of early pioneers are fascinating, they raise the question: are there other early pioneer stories waiting to be discovered? The story of Beebe Stevens Lynk (b. 1872), for example, deserves further research through the records available in the Tennessee State Archives. But there may be even more scientists, currently neglected or completely unknown, whose careers can be glimpsed in old medical records, legal documents, college transcripts, newspaper articles, and other primary sources. Uncovering their stories is an endeavor for historians and scientists alike.

Living in the Jim Crow South

Many of the women in the book grew up in the Jim Crow South. They were the children of parents who were sharecroppers or independent farmers, day workers, cotton pickers and other manual laborers. They grew up on farms or in small towns, some of which no longer exist. Their education often began in one room school houses which may have been part of the church. They had teachers who may have taught four grades at once without a teacher's aide, and where the older children helped the younger students. They may have continued their education in segregated schools when the "separate but equal" rule was established by law. The schools they attended often used books and equipment that were hand-me-downs from nearby white school districts, and few had labs to teach science. Jennie Patrick, for example, decided to attend a local white high school when she could because she was interested in science. She was smart and persistent, but endured a daily fight with students and teachers. These sad conditions continued even after the Brown vs. Board of Education legislation began as some of the Southern states were slow to integrate schools.

Despite this glum picture of education and life in the South, it was not all doom and gloom, and many of the women in this book benefited from the communities of black lawyers, preachers, educators and businesspeople. These leaders served as role models, representing fields that these women could expect to have if they went to college. Not surprisingly, educators were among the most influential people in the lives of these future scientists. African American teachers in the South were often educated at historically black colleges and universities, and had undergraduate or even advanced degrees in their subject. Many were qualified to teach at the college level, but had to teach in high school or even elementary schools because that was the only option open to them. They became the early role models and mentors for the women in the book, encouraging them to attend college themselves and pursue their goals.

Why chemistry?

Given the grim picture of life in the Southern states and the prospects for education, one may wonder why these women chose to major in science to take chemistry as a career path. The fact is that many of them chose a different career at first. They all had mentors who helped them all through their educational careers, and these teachers steered them to either the college that they had attended or one similar. There, especially in the historically black colleges, the women were nurtured by other mentors, mostly men, who could see their potential. Many of the women aimed at a career in medicine but were unable to get into medical school because of quotas for women and minorities. As a result, they wound up teaching science at their old high schools with a BS or MS degree.

Eventually, the first chemistry positions opened to minorities were in the National Labs because of an Executive order of the President. During the world wars, opportunities opened for women with chemistry degrees because many men were away at war. The chemical industry which began in Germany was cut off from the US during the wars; thus, the US divisions became separate corporations. But when the men came back home from the war, the women lost their jobs. As with Yates, women also lost their jobs if they became pregnant, a practice which lasted as late as the early 1960s. In spite of these obstacles, the women persevered

The Double Bind

The practice of firing pregnant employees shows that these chemists faced what some experts have referred to as the "double bind" of being both a minority and a woman in science. In 1973, the American Society for the Advancement of Science convened a meeting of minority women in science to study this. There were thirteen chemists and chemical engineers in the group, which included four of the women in my book. At the meeting, the women explored what it was like to be both a woman and a minority in science, and gave solutions to the problems of discrimination and unequal opportunities. The report recommended more federal programs to encourage minority girls to enter the careers in science. In addition, the report called for affirmative action in education, recruitment and hiring, and promotions for minority women. Finally, the scientists proposed additional projects to help this process, and asked that young minority students keep their options open by preparing for future careers in science.

The Future

The doors are now open for young women who want to pursue careers in chemistry or chemical engineering, and the need for high school and middle school chemistry and science teachers is critical. But students must be prepared to go into these careers by working hard on their education and taking advantage of the opportunities available to them at every step. At the same time, parents need to know about these opportunities in order to help their children. Despite the persistent stereotypes, numerous studies show that young girls in middle school have an interest in science, an interest that cannot be deterred even by teachers who do not believe in them. But these students would benefit from having mentors or role models. This is the reason this book was written, to provide role models to students and lead them to the opportunities that are available now and in the future. That way—as President Obama said—we can grow our own "world class scientists".

For Further Reading

Warren, Wini. 1999. Black Women Scientists in the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jordan, Diann, 2006. Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists about Race, Gender, and their Passion for Science. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Brown, Jeannette E. 2011. African American Women Chemists. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malcom, Shirley, Paula Quick Hall and Janet Welsh Brown. The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Woman and Minority in Science http://web.mit.edu/cortiz/www/Diversity/1975-DoubleBind.pdf. (accessed March 10, 2011).

Hansen, Sandra L. 2009. Swimming against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

African American Women Chemists: Table of Contents

Abron, Lilia Ann
Anderson, Gloria Long
Ball, Alice Augusta
Brown, Jeannette Elizabeth
Daly, Marie Maynard
Edwards, Cecile Hoover
Harris, Betty Wright
Hill, Mary Elliott
Hopkins, Esther A. H
Johnson, Allene
Jordan, Lynda Marie
Kelly, Sinah Estelle
King, Angie Turner
King, Reatha Clark
Lawson, Katheryn Emanuel
Lynk, Beebe Steven
Meade-Tollin, Linda C.
Patrick, Jennie
Prothro, Johnnie Hines Watts
Robeson, Eslanda Goode
Royal, Gladys W.
Schiesler, Mary Antoinette
Shavers, Cheryl L.
Tolbert, Margaret Ellen Mayo
Torrey, Rubye Prigmore
Yates, Josephine Silone