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Black History and STEM/Medicine, a story

On this date, the Registry looks at Black influence and contributions to global science and chemistry.

Understanding the properties of substances or matter and how to make practical use of them is the essence of chemistry, whether the study takes place in a formal laboratory or not.  The effectiveness of indigenous medicines used for centuries by traditional African and African American practitioners throughout the world is recognized today.

Even before they were exposed to western science and medicine, many African cultures used natural versions of aspirin, kaolin (an effective cure for diarrhea), and herbal treatments for skin infections.  African doctors had discovered effective herbal remedies for several diseases; the Zulu people alone had found medicinal applications from over 700 plants. This intersectionality of knowledge, suppressed conditions, desire to be innovative, and curiosity prevailed.

African captives of the Middle Passage brought their scientific knowledge with them to America, and during the slavery period, several emerged as proficient in healing and medicine.  The abolition of slavery allowed Blacks to begin earning mainstream respect for their work in the laboratories of science. In the late 19th century, George Washington Carver emerged as a pioneer in agricultural research. He found dozens of uses for chemicals he extracted from peanuts and potatoes. His research led to the development of hundreds of products, including ink, shampoo, and peanut butter.  He later became a vocal supporter of growing peanuts as a source of protein. During the 20th century, several African American chemists have made important offerings in physical, organic, nuclear, and analytical chemistry.

Lloyd A. Hall, president of the Griffith Chemical Company, discovered important food preservatives. Percy L. Julian developed a way to remove and prepare soybean products as cortisone, to treat arthritis, and an extract used in the treatment of glaucoma. Julian registered more than 130 chemical patents during the course of his career.

Other African American chemist includes Jane Wright, former director of the Cancer Research Foundation, who formulated mithramycin, a drug that has proved promising in fighting cancer. William A. Lester Jr., a theoretical chemist who did research on the troubles of high-velocity molecular collisions, was chosen to manage the National Resource for Computation in Chemistry. James A. Harris helped to discover Rutherfordium (atomic number 104) and Hafnium (atomic number 105).

Since 1916, when St. Elmo Brady became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry, Blacks have played an increasingly important role in laboratories and lecture halls. Current data indicates that African Americans comprise nearly 4 percent of Ph.D. students in chemistry.

From George W. Carver to Ralph G. Gardner to Dr. Shirley Jackson, to Mark Dean and countless others the number of Black chemists and scientists is increasing.  In the 21st century, Black men and women continue to be at the forefront of research in STEM.  Kizzmekia Shanta Colbert, Immunologist has been instrumental in finding a cure for the Covid-19 pandemic

Reference:
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-8160-3289-0

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