Biography: Inventor Emmett Chappelle

Inventor Emmett Chappelle Recieved 14 U.S. Patents


Inventor Emmett Chappelle is the recipient of 14 U.S. patents and has been recognized as one of the most distinguished African-American scientists and engineers of the 20th Century.

Chappelle was born on October 24, 1925, in Phoenix, Arizona, to Viola White Chappelle and Isom Chappelle. His family farmed cotton and cows on a small farm. He was drafted into the U.S. Army right after graduating from the Phoenix Union Colored High School in 1942 and was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, where he was able to take some engineering courses. Chappelle was later reassigned to the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division and served in Italy. After returning to the U.S., Chappelle went on to earn his associate's degree from Phoenix College.

After graduating, Chappelle went on to teach at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1950 to 1953, where he also conducted his own research. His work was soon recognized by the scientific community and he accepted an offer to study at the University of Washington, where he received his master's degree in biology in 1954. Chappelle continued his graduate studies at Stanford University, though he did not complete a Ph.D. degree. In 1958, Chappelle joined the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore, where his research aided in the creation of a safe oxygen supply for astronauts. He went on to work for Hazelton Laboratories in 1963.

Innovations at NASA

Chappelle started with NASA in 1966 in support of NASA's manned space flight initiatives. He pioneered the development of the ingredients ubiquitous in all cellular material. Later, he developed techniques that are still widely used for the detection of bacteria in urine, blood, spinal fluids, drinking water and foods.

In 1977, Chappelle turned his research efforts toward the remote sensing of vegetation health through laser-induced fluorescence (LIF). Working with scientists at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, he advanced the development of LIF as a sensitive means of detecting plant stress.

Chappelle proved that the number of bacteria in water can be measured by the amount of light given off by that bacteria. He also showed how satellites can monitor luminescence levels to monitor crops (growth rates, water conditions, and harvest timing). 

Chappelle retired from NASA in 2001. Along with this 14 U.S. patents, he has produced more than 35 peer-reviewed scientific or technical publications, nearly 50 conference papers and co-authored or edited numerous publications. He also earned an Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA for his work. 

Accolades and Accomplishments

Chappelle is a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society of Photobiology, the American Society of Microbiology and the American Society of Black Chemists. Throughout his career, he has continued to mentor talented minority high school and college students in his laboratories. In 2007, Chappelle was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on bioluminescence.

Chappelle married his high school sweetheart, Rose Mary Phillips. He now lives with his daughter and son-in-law in Baltimore.