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Chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1902. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Catalyzing Chemists – African Americans in the Chemical Sciences

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Chemists have been a vital part of society for hundreds of years, with alchemists coming before them. People curious about the elements and their fascinating properties contribute so much to the understanding and betterment of our world. The following highlights African American chemists Alice Ball, Norbert Rillieux, Marie Maynard Daly, and Percy Julius.

Image is a light blue house in a tropical environment with a porch and surrounded by a half dozen palm trees
Social Hall for the Kalaupapa leper colony. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Alice Ball (1892-1916) grew up in Seattle and earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington, one for pharmaceutical chemistry and one for pharmacy. In 1914, while at the University of Washington, Ball and her professor were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society v.36, no.10, for the paper “Benzoylations in Ether Solutions.” After relocating to Hawaii, she became the first African American and woman to earn a master’s degree in chemistry at the College of Hawaii (known today as the University of Hawaii). Upon graduation, she was offered a position at the university and so became the first female chemistry instructor at the age of 23.

In the early 20th century, leprosy patients were still isolated on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Dr. Harry Hollman, who worked at Kalihi Hospital in Honolulu, would evaluate patients and if they were unable to receive treatment, they were exiled to Molokai. Hollmann asked Ball for help in creating an injectable cure, and within a year she had done so by isolating the ethyl esters from the oil of Hydnocarpus wightianus, or chaulmoogra tree, seeds. Her work led to a treatment that was used until the 1940s and saved thousands of lives.

image from a patent by Rillieux for a sugar-refining apparatus
Elevation of the sugar-refining apparatus invented by Rillieux, Patent No. 4879.

Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) is considered one of the earliest chemical engineers. Rillieux was born in New Orleans and showed the same interest in engineering as his father, who sent him to France for his education. While in France, he became an instructor of applied mechanics at L’École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, now part of Université Paris-Saclay. Rillieux began researching a more efficient sugar refining process and moved back to Louisiana at the prospect of being the head engineer at a new sugar refinery. The refinery was never completed, but Rillieux did complete his research and was granted Patent No. US4879 in 1846, which explained his “new and useful Improvements in the Method of Heating, Evaporating, and Cooling Liquids, especially intended for the manufacture of sugar.” This invention worked by using a series of successive pans “to make use of the vapor of the evaporation of the juice in the first, to heat the juice in the second and the vapor from this to heat the juice in the third.” This innovation allowed for more efficient production and the use of less fuel. Fun fact: Rillieux is a cousin of Edgar Degas, the French impressionist painter.

Marie Maynard Daly in her lab. From the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Archives. Ted Burrows, photographer.

Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003), born and raised in the borough of Queens, New York, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Queens College and her master’s in chemistry from New York University. Based on her dissertation at Columbia University, “A Study of the Products Formed by the Action of Pancreatic Amylase on Corn Starch,” she became the first African American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. Post-doc, Daly taught chemistry at Howard University, performed research on the metabolism of nucleic components at the Rockefeller Institute, and taught biochemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, ultimately becoming a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She was a prolific author and can tout many publications on wide ranging subjects, such as the role of ribonucleoprotein in protein synthesis, the amino acid composition of histones, and arterial lysosomes, to name a few. Daly was published in highly regarded journals like the Journal of General Physiology, the Journal of Experimental Medicine, and the Journal of Clinical Investigation. These accomplishments are incredible, and even more so, she instituted a scholarship program in her parents’ name at Queens College for minority students eager to study science.

29¢ Percy Julian single. National Postal Museum.

Percy Julian (1899-1975) is arguably most known for his landmark synthesis of physostigmine, a compound that to this day is used in the treatment of glaucoma, due to its ability to reduce intraocular pressure by increasing the aqueous flow and outflow facility. His findings were co-authored by Josef Pikl and appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society v.57, no. 4. During the length of his career Julian went on to make enormous contributions to the field of medicinal chemistry, from researching sterols that led to the creation of progesterone and other sex hormones, to his synthesis of Rechstein’s Substance S (11-Deoxycortisol) which aids in the production of cortisone, to his work in synthesizing multiple other steroids. No doubt millions of people have benefitted from the research Julian performed over the course of his life and his research brought him over 100 patents, including one for margarine!

These four Americans did incredible work against just as incredible odds. Not only this country, but the world itself is in a better state because of their contributions. The space here limits us, so I strongly recommend learning more about them and their discoveries, as well as other amazing African American chemists. The following list of Internet and print resources is a good place to start:

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