11 Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers

Black and white photo of George Washington Carver working in his lab.
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Black scientists, engineers, and inventors have made important contributions to the science of chemistry. Learn about black chemists and chemical engineers and their projects in the 19th and 21st centuries.

Key Takeaways: Black Chemists

  • African Americans have made significant contributions to the fields of chemistry and chemical engineering through research and inventions.
  • In the 21st century, black scientists, engineers, and inventors continue to innovate. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was much harder for their work to get recognized.

Chemists Who Changed the World

In 1988, Patricia Bath invented the Cataract Laser Probe, a device that painlessly removes cataracts. Prior to this invention, cataracts were surgically removed. Patricia Bath founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was an agricultural chemist who discovered industrial uses for crop plants such as sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soybeans. He developed methods for improving soil. Carver recognized that legumes return nitrates to the soil. His work led to crop rotation. Carver was born a slave in Missouri. He struggled to gain an education, eventually graduating from what was to become Iowa State University. He joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1986. Tuskegee is where he performed his famous experiments.

Marie Daly (1921-2003) became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1947. The majority of her career was spent as a college professor. In addition to her research, she developed programs to attract and aid minority students in medical and graduate school.

Mae Jemison (born 1956) is a retired medical doctor and American astronaut. In 1992, she became the first black woman in space. She holds a degree in chemical engineering from Stanford and a degree in medicine from Cornell. She remains very active in science and technology.

Percy Julian (1899-1975) developed the anti-glaucoma drug physostigmine. Dr. Julian was born in Montgomery, Alabama, but educational opportunities for African Americans were limited in the South at that time, so he received his undergraduate degree from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. His research was conducted at DePauw University.

Samuel Massie, Jr. (died May 9, 2005) became the first black professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1966, making him the first black to teach full-time at any U.S. military academy. Massie received a master's degree in chemistry from Fisk University and a doctorate in organic chemistry from Iowa State University. Massie was a professor of chemistry at the Naval Academy, became the chairman of the department of chemistry and co-founded the Black Studies program.

Garrett Morgan is responsible for several inventions. Garret Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky in 1877. His first invention was a hair straightening solution. On October 13, 1914, he patented a Breathing Device, the first gas mask. The patent described a hood attached to a long tube that had an opening for air and a second tube with a valve that allowed air to be exhaled. On November 20, 1923, Morgan patented the first traffic signal in the U.S. He later patented the traffic signal in England and Canada. Morgan also invented the zig-zag stitching attachment for manual sewing machines.

Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) invented a revolutionary new process for refining sugar. Rillieux’s most famous invention was a multiple-effect evaporator, which harnessed steam energy from boiling sugarcane juice, greatly reducing refining costs. One of Rillieux's patents was initially declined because it was believed he was a slave and therefore not a U.S. citizen. However, Rillieux was free.

Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950) is called the "Father of the Blood Bank." As a surgeon, he pioneered research into the use and preservation of blood and plasma in World War II. His techniques for blood storage were adopted by the American Red Cross.

St. Elmo Brady (1884-1966) was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the U.S. He earned his degree in 1912 from the University of Illinois. After receiving his degree, Brady became a professor. He taught chemistry at historically black universities.

Henry Aaron Hill (1915-1979) became the first African American president of the American Chemical Society in 1977. In addition to numerous accomplishments as a researcher, Hill founded Riverside Research Laboratories, which specialized in polymers.