African-Americans in the Sciences


From Galileo Galilei to Neil deGrasse Tyson, great individuals who have advanced the cause of science throughout history have belonged to all backgrounds, races and creeds. So as you might expect, several of the scientific breakthroughs that shape our world today have come from the brilliant minds of African-American scientists.

Great African-American Scientists in History

Mainstream history books do not tend to go into much detail about scientists, other than those whose breakthroughs were able to achieve a significant amount of individual fame. African-American scientists, in particular, have had trouble earning recognition in the United States due to the many civil rights challenges they faced prior to and during the 20th century. Below is a list of some of the greatest African-American scientists and the scientific fields they helped to progress.

Biochemistry: George C. Royal

Born in 1921 in Williamson, S.C., George C. Royal is widely considered one of the greatest historical figures in the field of biochemistry. In fact, he belongs to the first generation of African-Americans to obtain their Ph.D.s from an Ivy League institution in the United States. Together with his wife, Gladys Geraldine Williams, Royal went on to make significant advances in the field of biochemistry, which include breakthroughs in treating radiation overdoses with bone marrow transplants.

Biology: Harold Amos

A microbiologist and medical doctor from Pennsauken, N.J., Harold Amos led a celebrated career in the sciences throughout his life. Born in 1917, Amos’s incredible intellect and brilliance in the field of biology led to his achievement of a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1952. Two years later, Amos joined the Harvard Medical School faculty, and became the university’s first African-American department chair (Bacteriology) in 1968.

Chemistry: Percy Lavon Julian

This important figure in the history of chemistry should definitely be better known. Percy Julian was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1899. In addition to being one of the first African-Americans to receive a doctorate in the field of chemistry, Julian worked his entire life to submit more than 130 chemical patents. Julian is perhaps best known for successfully synthesizing the natural product physostigmine, which is now used as an antidote to treat certain intoxicating effects.

Physics: Neil deGrasse Tyson

These days, it seems there is no astrophysicist more revered by the public-at-large than Neil deGrasse Tyson. Born in 1958, Tyson’s early talent in the sciences was noticed by famed astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, who acted as a mentor for the younger student until his untimely death in 1996. Since then, Tyson’s great work in the field of astrophysics continues to amaze and astound; he is considered by many to be the rightful heir to Carl Sagan’s legacy in the field.

Engineering: Lonnie George Johnson

Lonnie George Johnson is an inventor and engineer from Mobile, Ala., who is perhaps best known for inventing the ubiquitous children’s toy, the Super Soaker. His invention went on to earn $200 million in retail sales for the Larami Corporation. In addition, Johnson has established two companies that are committed to renewable energy research. One of his most notable inventions in this field is the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC), which creates electrical energy from thermal energy.

Entomology: Charles Henry Turner

Born in 1867, Charles Henry Turner became the first African-American to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati, and later, the first to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Johnson was a very prolific academic writer who published 49 papers on the habits and psychology of invertebrates. He is perhaps best known for discovering that insects can hear and recognize sound.

Genetics: Rick Antonius Kittles

After earning his Ph.D. from George Washington University in 1998, Rick Kittles focused his attention on teaching at several different high schools throughout Washington, D.C. and New York. Kittles later began research on a federally funded project known as the New York African Burial Ground Project. During this time, Kittles made the discovery that DNA testing could be used to determine the genetic ancestry of African-Americans. This has proven to be a tremendous breakthrough in African-American ancestry research.

African Americans in the Sciences Today

Today, little stands in the way of an American’s aspirations to earn a graduate degree. It should not be discounted, however, that many of the great African-American scientists discussed above faced great adversity in their quest to become educated, and much of this adversity is still felt today. Yet, the number of African-Americans who currently work in the sciences is growing at an accelerated pace. In fact, between the years 2000 and 2009, the number of African-Americans who earned a Ph.D. in the sciences grew tremendously.

In addition to the several important African-American scientists who continue their work today, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lonnie George Johnson, several more African-American scientists are making waves in the field today. Of these many great people in the sciences, African American women are accounting for a larger percentage than ever before. Dr. Meredith Groudine, who successfully converted natural gas into electricity, and Valerie Thomas, the inventor of the illusion transmitter for NASA, stand as two prominent contemporary examples.

The Future of African Americans in the Sciences

As we progress toward equality for all races, backgrounds and creeds, the future remains bright for minorities still facing roadblocks on their path toward higher education. It is unfortunate that so many continue to struggle to achieve the same access and education as many of their fellow citizens. The good news is that this gap is closing faster than ever before.

While there is much to be optimistic about, there is, of course, work to do. This great collection of data compiled by Paul J. Laybourn at Colorado State University illustrates why everyone should care about equality in the sciences. Not only does Laybourn’s study show the tremendous need for educated scientists, it also shows how underrepresented minorities (URMs), such as African-Americans, still account for a very small percentage of students in actual programs.

Recently, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education initiatives have been doing much to improve the quality of education received by underrepresented minorities. Not only do STEM programs in high schools and universities around the country have a positive effect on an increased number of skilled workers and professionals, they give many people an opportunity to learn valuable skills in the sciences. This informative article from The Chronicle of Higher Education lays out why promoting the track to a STEM education is in the national interest.

Science Should Never Go Unnoticed

Today, we take pride in the many African Americans whose great work has advanced the cause of science in the United States and beyond. Our world would not be the same without the breakthroughs and achievements of these brilliant men and women. As more and more underrepresented minorities continue to choose an education in the sciences, it is all but certain that the United States will retain its status as the world’s leading scientific power.