A lot of firsts among today’s African American scientists and inventors. What geniuses!
1. Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918)
Edward Alexander Bouchet was born in New Haven, CT in 1852. He is mostly known for being the first African American to earn a PhD from a US university. He received his PhD in Physics from Yale in 1876 joining only a handful of others who had earned that same degree at the time. Unfortunately, despite his academic achievements, he was unable to find a professorship position because he was black. He landed a job at the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia where, for more than 25 years, he taught chemistry and physics. This school was one of the few institutions to even offer a rigorous academic program. Bouchet left the school in 1902 when administration decided to turn the school into a more vocational training program. He would hold a variety of jobs including becoming a principal at a high school in Virginia from 1908-1913. Due to poor health, he retired and returned to New Haven where he remained until he passed away in 1918. In 1998, Yale University presented a tombstone in his honor and the school’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences created the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in his name. (For more information, please visit here.)
2. George Washington Carver (1864?-1943)
George Washington Carver was born into slavery around 1864 in Diamond, MO. He, his sister and mother were kidnapped from the Moses Carver farm a week after his birth by raiders from Arkansas and sold in Kentucky. Moses Carver sent an agent to find them but could only locate George who was then returned to Missouri. Moses Carver and his wife, Susan, decided to keep George and his brother James once the Civil War ended, and raised and educated the two boys themselves since no local schools would accept black students at the time. Carver would end up attending Iowa State Agricultural College at the suggestion of a teacher and began his studies in science soon establishing himself as a fantastic botanist, something that would remain with him throughout his life. Booker T. Washington, the principal of the African American Tuskegee Institute, recruited Carver to run the school’s agricultural department in 1896. The national recognition that Tuskegee’s agricultural department would attain was all because of Carver’s leadership. His drive to educate African American students directly contributed to the effort of economic stabilization of blacks. He would bring his lessons to farmers. In addition, he changed the shape of agriculture with his inventions which included plastics, paints, dyes and even a type of gasoline. Carver died on January 5, 1943 after falling down the stairs at his home. He is buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee grounds. (For more information, please visit here.)
Here’s a picture of George Washington Carver gathering soil sample. (Photo from http://www.americaslibrary.gov)
3. Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923)
Charles Henry Turner was born on February 3, 1867 in Cincinnati, OH to parents who encouraged him to read and learn. He attended the University of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in biology in 1891 and earned a Master’s degree the following year. He married Leontine Troy in 1887 and the two had two sons before she died in 1895. Upon graduating, Turner reached out to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute to help find a teaching position and some believe that Turner lost out on a position at the institute to George Washington Carver (wow!). In 1907, Turner graduated from the University of Chicago with a PhD in zoology, joining the small group of African Americans who received a PhD at the time. He moved to St. Louis, MO to teach at Sumner High School until 1922. He is most known for being the first person to discover that insects can hear and alter their behavior based on previous experience. His research showed that insects were capable of learning, and in two of his most famous research projects, that honey bees can see in color and recognize patterns. Some of these experiments he conducted while teaching at Sumner without having any research assistants or laboratory space. In 1922, Turner moved back to Chicago to live with his son Darwin where he passed away on February 14, 1923. (For more information, please visit here.)