Chemical Relations: William and Lawrence Knox, African American Chemists

On New Year’s Day 1940 Lawrence H. Knox received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Harvard University. One of a select cohort of 26 to receive that particular degree in the United States that year, Lawrence belonged to an even more select group: he was one of only 30 African Americans to receive a Ph.D. degree in all branches of chemistry since 1916. Astoundingly, another member of that group was Lawrence’s older brother, William, Jr., who received his Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1935.

That one family should produce almost 7% of all black Ph.D.  chemists over a 25-year period is remarkable—especially a family with its roots in the slave-holding South. Beginning in the 1820s in North Carolina, where teaching slaves to read was a criminal offense, and stretching to the 1930s in New England, where a few black students attended the country’s elite universities, each generation of the Knox family climbed another rung on the ladder of success.

Yet William’s and Lawrence’s talents, hard work, and superb qualifications could not insulate their lives from the pervasive racism of American society. While World War II opened doors to a world beyond the black education ghetto, postwar patterns of discrimination molded both of their lives as chemists. Each brother confronted rebuffs and humiliations; each made a distinct contribution to chemistry and to American society.

Climbing toward Chemistry

The brothers’ grandfather, Elijah Knox, was born into slavery in North Carolina in the 1820s. Elijah became a skilled carpenter and bought his freedom in 1846. He moved north, eventually settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts—an important stop on the Underground Railway with a long-established African American community. Family histories and birth records suggest that Elijah’s sister was Harriet Jacobs, author of a famous slave narrative of resistance, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.