Black Women, Chemistry Pioneers in Chemical & Engineering News

Jeannette E. Brown, Credit: Courtesy of Olivia Holmes

April 2, 2012 - Washington, DC

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.

In the first chapter of the book, Brown explains her motivations to write it, her selection of the women who are its focus, and her efforts to collect all the information available about these pioneering African American women chemists into a single compilation. She says she was prompted to write the book by several factors: the inspiration she drew from meeting Marie Maynard Daly, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry; requests for more information about pioneering women chemists when she presented talks at national meetings; and a desire to see all the information available on this subject collected into a single resource, particularly for young people who might be inspired by the pioneers’ example. . . .

Link to C&EN

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