Skip to main content

African Americans in Physics

This week on the PhysicsCentral Podcast is the story of John McNeile Hunter, the founder and long time head of the physicss department at Virginia State College. He was the third African American to receive a PhD in physics. However there have been many more.

Edward Bouchet was the first African American to receive a PhD from a university in the United States. He received his doctorate in 1876 from Yale after studying optics, but had trouble finding a teaching position afterwards because of his race. He took a position teaching physics and chemistry at the Institute of Colored Youth in Pennsylvania for 26 years, then moved around to several different colleges and high schools at the end of his career.

Elmer Imes was the second African American to receive a physics doctorate, and the first to publish research. His work, published in 1920, on molecular infrared spectroscopy provided one of the earliest tests of quantum theory. Despite his scientific achievements, he also had trouble finding employment at a university or college, and spent the next ten years of his life at different industrial labs. In 1930 he became the chair of the physics department at Fisk University.

Warren Henry's celebrated career spanned 70 years. As an graduate student at the University of Chicago he studied under (and played tennis with) with number nobel laureates including Arthur Compton, James Franck, Maria Goepert-Mayer, Robert Mulliken and Wolfgang Pauli. During World War II, he helped develop radar. After the war he worked at the Naval Research Laboratory and explored the magnetic and superconductive properties of materials at temperatures near absolute zero, and ways to use them in aerospace technology. He taught at the Tuskegee Institute, and was chair of the physics department at Morehouse College.

Shirley Ann Jackson is currently the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the second African American woman to receive a PhD in physics. She started her career working at Fermilab, SLAC and CERN before arriving at Bell Laboratories in 1976 to work on condensed matter research. In 1995, President Clinton named her the as the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the first woman and the first African American as head of the commission.

Before Ronald McNair was an astronaut, he was researching satellite communications at Hughes Research Laboratory in California. His first flight into space was on board the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984 to conduct experiments in microgravity. He and the rest of his crew lost their lives seconds after liftoff of his second shuttle flight on board Challenger in 1986. The mission of the flight was to photograph Halley's Comet.

Jim Gates is a world renowned theoretical physicist. He is a pioneer into theories about supersymmetry and string theory. He is a professor at the University of Maryland, but his influence extends to many areas. He is on the president's science advisory board on the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and on the Maryland Board of Education. He has also appeared on many TV shows and in popular films about physics.


  1. African Americans in academia were rare until recently for simple economic reasons--very few African Americans were willing to take the pay cut it took to take a PhD and pursue a career of teaching and research when far more lucrative careers were available in engineering. In the early 1980s when I was working in the staffing efforts of one of the world's foremost universities, we eagerly sought PhDs from African American, Hispanic and Asian American heritages. We were only able to find and recruit Asian American candidates for Physics (and all other engineering PhD positions as well) because there simply were only one or two African American and Hispanic candidates a year worldwide, and we were consistently outbid by other better funded universities.

    At the time, the effective pay cut was over 50%--qualified engineers were starting at over twice the salary of a beginning assistant professor with a top salary package. And this was with a four-year degree, not the eight years of a PhD, so you must factor in the four years of lost income as well.

    1. While this may be part of the reason, you can't ignore social factors (racism, anyone?) that have prevented or discouraged African-Americans from entering academia, even today.

  2. Thank you for this post.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts

How 4,000 Physicists Gave a Vegas Casino its Worst Week Ever

What happens when several thousand distinguished physicists, researchers, and students descend on the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? The answer is "a bad week for the casino"—but you'd never guess why.

Ask a Physicist: Phone Flash Sharpie Shock!

Lexie and Xavier, from Orlando, FL want to know: "What's going on in this video ? Our science teacher claims that the pain comes from a small electrical shock, but we believe that this is due to the absorption of light. Please help us resolve this dispute!"

The Science of Ice Cream: Part One

Even though it's been a warm couple of months already, it's officially summer. A delicious, science-filled way to beat the heat? Making homemade ice cream. (We've since updated this article to include the science behind vegan ice cream. To learn more about ice cream science, check out The Science of Ice Cream, Redux ) Image Credit: St0rmz via Flickr Over at Physics@Home there's an easy recipe for homemade ice cream. But what kind of milk should you use to make ice cream? And do you really need to chill the ice cream base before making it? Why do ice cream recipes always call for salt on ice?