Margaret E. M. Tolbert

Margaret Tolbert. Courtesy Margaret E. M. Tolbert.

Margaret Tolbert. Courtesy Margaret E. M. Tolbert.

Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert (b. 1943) has worked across the chemical map. As a chemistry professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama, she explored the chemistry of the human liver. As director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee, she oversaw institutional development in the university’s research programs. Later recruited by industry, she developed corporate research and development strategies for British Petroleum. In 1996 she entered government work.

Tolbert was born in Suffolk, Virginia, at a time when rural Virginia was still very segregated. Her parents separated when she was a child, and her mother died shortly thereafter. She was raised by her grandmother for a time and then by an older sister. As a young African-American woman, Tolbert quickly figured out that education was her best chance to overcome these less-than-ideal circumstances. She applied herself at school and graduated as valedictorian of her class. To help the family’s strained finances, she took on housekeeping jobs after school. This not only brought in extra money; it introduced her to the Cooks, an educated and relatively well-off African-American couple who encouraged Margaret to go to college, as did her teachers. The Cooks even drove her all the way to Alabama to visit the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where they had friends on the faculty.

Tolbert decided to enroll in Tuskegee, first planning on medical school but changing her plans when she learned that she could receive more financial aid as a chemistry student. As an undergraduate, she got her first taste of research while investigating the electrical conductivity of electrolyte solutions. She also learned about George Washington Carver, the scientist who spent a career at Tuskegee studying peanuts and peanut products with the hope of creating markets for the impoverished farmers of southern Alabama. Carver became a personal hero to Tolbert.

After graduating in 1967 with her B.S. in chemistry, Tolbert earned an M.S. in analytical chemistry from Wayne State University in Michigan. During this time she also married, and upon completing her master’s returned to Tuskegee to be with her husband and to work as a lab technician, also teaching math and courses in outreach programs for high school science teachers. But before long, she left Tuskegee—and a failed marriage—for graduate school at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she studied biochemistry and researched the liver and how it works. Her friends the Cooks cared for her young son while she earned her degree. For her doctoral work she looked at how the liver synthesizes glucose, a simple sugar, and how the body tells the liver when to start making glucose and when to stop. Liver chemistry would be an ongoing theme throughout her research career at other institutions. At Brown she also met and married Henry Hudson Tolbert.

After getting her Ph.D. from Brown in 1974, Tolbert worked at many institutions, from Florida A&M University, where she was a dean, to the International Institute of Cellular and Molecular Pathology in Brussels, Belgium. A lover of travel, this lifestyle suited her well. She returned to Tuskegee again for a time to direct the university’s Carver Research Foundation. After roughly a decade in this position (1979–1988), she became enticed by industry, taking a sabbatical from Tuskegee to work in research planning and management for British Petroleum, which took her to Ohio and England. In addition, she spent time at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and helped establish educational cooperation between large U.S. government labs and universities in Africa.

In 1996 she entered government work as director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s New Brunswick Laboratory, a government research facility for nuclear chemistry located on the grounds of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. There, through 2002, she used her training in analytical chemistry in efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons technology. She led her staff in projects to prevent the spread of nuclear materials, prepare and certify nuclear reference materials for use in the standardization of instruments, evaluate the measurement capabilities of different nuclear laboratories worldwide, and measure the amount of nuclear material in samples from around the world.

Throughout her career Tolbert had always been involved in educational outreach. In 2002 she decided to make outreach her full-time job and went to work as a senior-level advisor and spokesperson for the National Science Foundation’s Office of Integrative Activities. In this role, she promotes the agency’s efforts to increase participation by underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities, and women in science and engineering research and education. She also serves as executive secretary and NSF liaison to the congressionally mandated Committee on Equal Opportunity in Science and Engineering, and manages the multimillion-dollar Science and Technology Centers program.

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