The first African American to receive a doctoral degree in the
United States was a scientist. Dr. Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918)
was a native of New Haven, Connecticut, who graduated from Yale
University’s undergraduate school in 1874, and completed his Ph.D. in
physics there in 1876.
Several years after graduation, Bouchet was elected into Phi Beta
Kappa, becoming one of the honor society’s first Black members. He
spent most of his career sharing his knowledge with other African
Americans as a secondary school science educator.
In the fifty-six years following Boucher’s graduation, only twelve other African Americans would earn Ph.D.s in the sciences.
Like most racial disparities in the U.S., the dearth of
credentialed African American scientists is rooted in the nation’s
history of racial discrimination. It is difficult to fully comprehend
why the current scarcity exists without briefly reviewing the history
of African Americans in the sciences.
Early African American scientists have included people like
Benjamin Banneker, whose almanac was heralded by Thomas Jefferson;
George Washington Carver, the renowned biochemist; Garrett A. Morgan,
inventor of the stoplight and gas mask; and Granville T. Woods, the
electrical engineer who invented the third rail upon which many subway
systems run. These scientists, had no doctoral training
The existence of credentialed African American scientists in any
significant number is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. In the
first half of the century, however, even those who did achieve doctoral
degrees often found it difficult to obtain jobs within White-dominated
scientific institutions because of racial discrimination.
Overcoming Early Resistance
More than a half century after Bouchet’s achievement, Dr. Hildrus A.
“Gus” Poindexter became the first African American to receive both an
M.D. — which he earned at Harvard University in 1929 — and a Ph.D. —
which he earned in bacteriology at Columbia University in 1932 . A
native of Memphis, Tennessee, Poindexter, had earned his bachelor’s
degree at historically Black Lincoln University in 1924 before moving
on to pre-medical studies at Dartmouth College and then to Harvard.
Even after completing his Ph.D., Poindexter earned a master’s degree in
public health from Columbia in 1937.
The first doctoral degrees presented by Howard University, the
nations’ only historically Black research institution, were awarded in
the field of chemistry to Dr. Harold Delaney and Dr. Bibhuti Mazumder
in 1958. Today, Howard ranks number one among the ten leading
institutions of baccalaureate origin for Black science and engineering
doctorate recipients. In fact, six of these ten institutions are
historically Black institutions (see chart page 16).
The first African American to become a member of the National
Academy of Science, Dr. David H. Blackwell, was not elected into the
society until 1965. Blackwell earned his doctoral degree in mathematics
at the University of Illinois in 1941. Even with these achievements, by
1972 a cumulative total of only 850 African Americans had earned
Examples of the types of resistance Black scientists have
encountered are embodied in the experiences of Dr. Percy Lavon Julian
(1899-1975), an organic chemist who completed his undergraduate study
at DePauw University in 1920. Even though Julian had graduated at the
top of his class, he was denied admission to Harvard graduate school
the first time he applied.
Julian worked for two years at Fisk University, a historically
Black institution, before applying to Harvard again. He was accepted
the second time and completed his master’s degree in one year, after
which he worked for a short time as a researcher at Harvard. Julian
then taught at historically Black West Virginia State College and
Howard University before winning a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship
to pursue his doctoral studies.
Julian chose the Chemische Institut in Vienna, Austria, as the
place to complete his doctoral studies — in part to escape racism in
the United States. He was awarded his doctoral degree in 1931. His
doctoral research eventually led him to discover a method for the
synthesis of physostigmine, a chemical used to treat glaucoma. He also
discovered processes for the synthesis of progesterone and
testosterone, as well as synthetic cortisone.
Following his physostigmine discovery, Julian became the first
African American hired as the director of research by a major U.S.
chemical company. But the Glidden Company of Chicago hired him only
after he was denied opportunities to head the chemistry departments of
another chemical company and two universities — including his alma
mater, De Pauw — the basis of his race.
While living in Oak Park, Illinois, Julian’s life was threatened on
several occasions. At one point, racists even tried to burn down his
home, an indignity that was not uncommon for African Americans at that
The Female Equation
The history of Black women scientists begins even more recently.
One of the first Black women to become a Ph.D. scientist was Dr.
Flemmie P. Kittrell. Born in Henderson, North Carolina, she was the
seventh of her parents’ nine children. Kittrell completed her
undergraduate studies at the historically Black Hampton Institute in
1928, and her doctoral studies in nutrition at Cornell University in
Kittrell’s career included teaching posts at historically Black
Bennett College, Hampton Institute, and Howard University. She was also
involved in international activities aimed at improving the nutrition
of people living in developing nations in Africa and other parts of the
The first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics
graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1973.
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, a theoretical physicist, was mentored by the
first African American to earn a full-professorship in physics at MIT,
Dr. James Young. Jackson is currently a trustee at MIT and chairs the
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The first African American female astronaut, Dr. Mae Jemison, went
on her initial mission in space aboard the Endeavor shuttle in 1992.
She earned her bachelor’s in science at Stanford University and her
M.D. from Cornell Medical School, where she specialized in physiology.
Even now, in the latter days of the twentieth century, years pass
in which not a single African American earns a doctorate in some
Facts like these illustrate how recent the acceptance of and
participation by credentialed African Americans is within the national
and global scientific community.
Recent Creeping Progress
“We went through a period in the late seventies that was the peak
of production, [percentage-wise], for under-represented minorities in
science and engineering,” says Dr. Luther Williams, assistant director
of education and human resources at the National Science Foundation
“But what happened in the eighties,” Williams continues, “was a
progressive decline that happened when science and engineering really
became critical, almost mandatory, parts of the society. So, at the
exact time when we should have had robust production [of African
American scientists], we were actually losing.”
NSF data show that the decline in production of African American
scientists began to subside toward the latter half of the eighties. In
1987, the country produced a total of 133 Black Ph.D.s (includes
non-U.S. citizens) in science and engineering disciplines (excluding
social, life, and health sciences). Growth has been creeping upward
By 1995, the country awarded 255 Black doctorates in science and
engineering fields. Of those, 203 were African Americans (see chart
page 14). The other 52 were permanent U.S. residents of African
descent. But these represented only about 2.5 percent of the 10,076
science doctoral degrees awarded that year to U.S. citizens and
permanent residents. U.S. citizens represented 10,015 of these science
doctoral recipients (see chart below).
And according to a preliminary summary report of the most recent
Survey of Earned Doctorates, 283 Black science and engineering doctoral
candidates received their Ph.D.s in 1996 — representing 2.2 percent of
the 12,683 science doctoral degrees awarded that year to U.S. citizens
and permanent residents (see chart page 13).
Even with this progress, according to a 1996 NSF report on the
status of underrepresented populations within the sciences, there are
only about 1,000 Black computer scientists with Ph.D.s.; 1,000 Black
mathematical scientists with Ph.D.s; fewer than 500 Black physicists
with doctorates; 1,000 Black Ph.D. physical scientists; and 1,000 Black
engineers with doctoral credentials in today’s scientific labor force.
Among African American scientists and engineers working in higher
education, this same NSF report estimates there are only about 1,600
working at the nation’s research universities — where the bulk of
ground-breaking research takes place and where the majority of
public–and private–sector scientific research funding is funneled.
And that 1,600 includes social scientists.
These 1,600 science and engineering faculty represent roughly 14
percent of all African American scientists, including those without
Ph.D.s, working in postsecondary education, according to the NSF. In
contrast, roughly 27 percent of White, 36 percent of Asian, and 18
percent or Latino science and engineering faculty work at research
It should be noted that roughly 30 percent of all full-time Black
faculty work at historically Black institutions and only one — Howard
University — is classified as a research institution. This, coupled
with private industry’s aggressive employment of Black scientists and
engineers, may account for some of the disparity
Diversity Increasing, But Without Blacks
Blacks, together with Latinos and Native Americans, continue to be
grossly under-represented in science fields — collectively
representing only about around 3 percent of the national pool of all
people in the field, regardless of degree attainment. In contrast,
White women and Asian Americans have made significant advances over the
past couple of decades.
The increased presence of foreign-born scholars and researchers in these fields is even more dramatic.
“Nearly all of the Ph.D. growth in recent years has been due to
immigrants coming to the U.S. to study on temporary student visas,”
says Michael Teitelbaum, a program officer of the Alfred P. Sloan
The Sloan Foundation is one of the leading private-sector funders
of programs aimed at increasing the ranks of underrepresented
scientists. Teitelbaum’s comment occurred during his address last
September to scholars attending the 1997 Graduate Research Education
and Training Conference IV, in Leesburg, Virginia. He went on to
explain that between 1974 and 1994, the number of foreign students
pursing degrees in the sciences nearly tripled.
According to NSF reports, in 1977, people of color represented 13
percent of the overall number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents
earning doctoral degrees in science and engineering. Asian students
constituted 3 percent of these. Women earned approximately 25 percent
of the science and engineering doctoral degrees. That same year,
approximately 13 percent of all science and engineering doctoral
degrees earned went to foreign students.
By 1993, people of color were garnering 16 percent of all science
and engineering doctoral degrees earned by U.S. students. But most of
this growth occurred among Asian Americans, who earned 7 percent —
more than double what they had earned in 1977. Additionally, Asian
Americans account for nearly all of the increase experienced by
students of color.
Women’s doctoral degree attainment had reached approximately 40
percent of all science and engineering degrees in 1993. And the number
of science and engineering doctoral degrees awarded to foreign students
that year jumped to 26 percent.
“The last thing we need to do is get into a battle over
immigration,” says Dr. George Campbell, president of the National
Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Inc. But with 49 percent
of Ph.D.s and 62 percent of the post-doctoral appointments in
engineering going to foreign-born scholars, he finds it difficult not
to be concerned about the pace at which they have surpassed African
Americans in the sciences.
Campbell is further concerned by the declining enrollment of
African Americans in engineering. This is occurring at a time when
African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans constitute roughly 29
percent of the college-age population, but less than three percent of
the engineering doctoral recipients.
“It can be concluded from this data that careers in science must
look appealing to students coming to study here from abroad,”
Teitelbaum says. “But one of the questions scientists nationwide are
asking themselves is, `How do careers in science look to rational,
sensible U.S. undergraduates [of all races]?”‘
Indeed, data and anecdotal evidence indicate that many students,
African American and otherwise, who are academically prepared to pursue
careers in science often opt for careers in other fields where their
mathematical skills and scientific knowledge are an asset.
As history has demonstrated — and as Dr. Luther Williams points
out — the scientific enterprise has learned to function without the
participation of African Americans. But at what cost?
In the foreword to a 1996 NSF report, Director Neal Lane recommends
an alternate course for the future: “Different perspectives, talents,
and experiences produce better ideas and ultimately better goods and
services to meet the needs of increasingly diverse markets in the
United States and abroad. We need to involve all of the nation’s human
resources in science and engineering to stimulate creativity,
innovation, and change; contribute to the advancement of science and
engineering; and foster a scientifically literate population.”
[TABULAR DATA NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
Leading Colleges of Baccalaureate Origin for Black Science and Engineering Doctoral Recipients, 1988-93
Baccalaureate Number of
Howard University 63
Spelman College 33
Hampton University 30
Tuskegee University 28
North Carolina A&T University 26
University of Maryland 25
University of Maryland-Baltimore 23
Fisk University 23
Harvard University 23
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 23
University of Michigan 23
Source: Doctorate Survey Project, National Research Council
RELATED ARTICLE: About the Series
This two-part Black issues in Higher Education series aims to shed
light on how some of the leading science and engineering institutions
are addressing the scarcity of African Americans in these disciplines
— most specifically in the physical sciences (i.e. physics, chemistry,
astronomy, etc.), mathematics, engineering, and technology These are
fields where the paucity of African Americans is most acute.
The objective of the series is to explore current trends in
science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) education and to
uncover the types of academic environments in which African American
science students thrive. To achieve this end, the series investigates
trends in recruitment, admissions, retention, graduation rates,
graduate school performance, research funding, and faculty development
at eight postsecondary institutions. Part one, which appeared in the
March 19 edition, examined undergraduate experiences. In this edition,
featuring the second part of the series, the focus is on graduate
Among the Research I institutions featured in the series are:
California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Georgia Institute of
Technology (Georgia Tech), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
Stanford University, and the University of California-Berkeley. The
three remaining institutions featured include: Florida Agricultural
& Mechanical University (FAMU), and North Carolina Agricultural
& Technical State University (A&T), and the University of
Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC).
COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com