Black Women, Chemistry Pioneers
African American women staked out careers in chemistry despite racial and gender discrimination
Reviewed by Sharon L. Neal
When Chemical & Engineering News asked me to write a review of “African American Women Chemists,” by Jeannette E. Brown, I qualified my acceptance: “I am biased; I want to like it,” not only because I have a vested interest in the subject matter, but because I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to bring this project to fruition.
It has been several years since I first met Brown—a retired Merck & Co. research chemist and the 2009 Glenn E. & Barbara Hodson Ullyot Scholar of the Chemical Heritage Foundation—and learned of her intention to write a book recounting the life stories of the first African American women chemists. Whenever I would see her at American Chemical Society meetings, she would mention this work and I would nod and smile.
Now I worry that while I tried to look encouraging, my skepticism about her ability to complete such a book poked through. I was skeptical not only because of the small number of African American women chemistry pioneers, but also because I doubted that their lives were sufficiently documented to support a book. I could name a few African American men who had earned Ph.D.s in chemistry and had careers of distinction before affirmative action—Percy Julian, Lloyd Ferguson, and Samuel Massie, for instance—but I couldn’t name any black women in chemistry from that time, distinguished or otherwise. As I smiled I was thinking, “A whole book on this topic is impossible. What source material can there be?”
The last time I saw Brown, she was clearly dealing with health challenges and using a scooter to get around at the ACS meeting. I was more convinced her book would remain unwritten. I should have known better, though. How could writing a book about African American women chemists be more impossible than the accomplishments that the book recounts? I should have realized that Brown’s determination to write the book taps the same well that helped drive her subjects to pursue success in science.
Keep reading: Chemical & Engineering News, April 2, 2012