It is stern work, it is perilous work, to thrust your hand in the sun
And pull out a spark of immortal flame to warm the hearts of men:
But Prometheus, torn by the claws and beaks whose task is never done, would be tortured another eternity to go stealing fire again.
Black Women, Chemistry Pioneers
African American women staked out careers in chemistry despite racial and gender discrimination
Reviewed by Sharon L. Neal
When Chemical & Engineering News asked me to write a review of “African American Women Chemists,” by Jeannette E. Brown, I qualified my acceptance: “I am biased; I want to like it,” not only because I have a vested interest in the subject matter, but because I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to bring this project to fruition.
It has been several years since I first met Brown—a retired Merck & Co. research chemist and the 2009 Glenn E. & Barbara Hodson Ullyot Scholar of the Chemical Heritage Foundation—and learned of her intention to write a book recounting the life stories of the first African American women chemists. Whenever I would see her at American Chemical Society meetings, she would mention this work and I would nod and smile.
Now I worry that while I tried to look encouraging, my skepticism about her ability to complete such a book poked through. I was skeptical not only because of the small number of African American women chemistry pioneers, but also because I doubted that their lives were sufficiently documented to support a book. I could name a few African American men who had earned Ph.D.s in chemistry and had careers of distinction before affirmative action—Percy Julian, Lloyd Ferguson, and Samuel Massie, for instance—but I couldn’t name any black women in chemistry from that time, distinguished or otherwise. As I smiled I was thinking, “A whole book on this topic is impossible. What source material can there be?”
The last time I saw Brown, she was clearly dealing with health challenges and using a scooter to get around at the ACS meeting. I was more convinced her book would remain unwritten. I should have known better, though. How could writing a book about African American women chemists be more impossible than the accomplishments that the book recounts? I should have realized that Brown’s determination to write the book taps the same well that helped drive her subjects to pursue success in science.
Keep reading: Chemical & Engineering News, April 2, 2012
Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.