Chemical Relations: William and Lawrence Knox, African American Chemists

In 1964, when the new company headquarters opened in Palo Alto, California, most of the expatriate staff relocated, but Larry and Anne opted to stay in Mexico where racial attitudes were relatively liberal. They adopted Naomi, a Mexican baby, but Larry did not live to see her grow up. He died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 1966, while working in a home office warmed by a kerosene heater.

Epilogue: A Tale of Two Brothers and a Wider Community

The struggles of Larry and William to gain professional acceptance and maintain personal dignity, stirring as they are, were not unique. Chemist Percy L. Julian and biologist Ernest E. Just shared similar stories. The Knox brothers stand out because they were two members of the same family who sought professions in scientific research, where prospects for African Americans were generally dismal. Those with an aptitude for science and a decent education usually opted for medicine, as Julian’s two brothers did.

The careers of the Knox brothers bracket those of Julian and Just. William spearheaded numerous civil-rights initiatives. Although he was a capable scientist who enjoyed his work, chemistry did not always claim his primary allegiance. He wrote that the bitter experiences of racial discrimination “have led to my active participation in efforts to establish a genuinely democratic society.” William was highly respected by his Kodak colleagues—known as “the man to consult about coating problems”—but his principal legacy is his record of civic action. The recipient of several awards for his work in the local community, he died in 1995.

By contrast Larry always prized working at the bench and, as far as we know, never involved himself in any social movement. A notice of his death in the Bates Alumnus carried the following excerpt from a eulogy delivered at Syntex: “His contribution to science is fundamental . . . his recent discoveries so important . . . that his name will remain forever in scientific literature. . . . He leaves us a unique example of dynamism and enthusiasm. . . . He will remain an example of courage and modesty.”

Nonetheless, William and Lawrence, brothers and scientists, each had to confront the racial discrimination that shadowed but never eclipsed their lives and careers.

Leon Gortler is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He has been active in the history of chemistry since the late 1970s and has conducted over 50 oral and videotaped history interviews with major American academic and industrial chemists.

Stephen J. Weininger, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has been active in the history and philosophy of chemistry for over a quarter century. He was a chemistry editor for the New Dictionary of Scientific Biography (2008) and wrote the entry on Paul D. Bartlett.

Editors' Note: Walter Hückel is named in this article as the theoretician who proposed a general theory based on the number of electrons in a ring compound. In fact, it was his brother Erich who proposed the theory. We regret the error.