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Sun, 11.18.1917

Carolyn B. Parker, Physicist born

Carolyn Parker

*Carolyn Parker was born on this date in 1917.  She was a Black physicist and professor.  Carolyn Beatrice Parker was born in Gainesville, Florida. Her father, Julius A. Parker, was a successful physician and pharmacist who graduated from Meharry Medical College, the first medical school in the South for Blacks. Her mother was Della Ella Murrell Parker.  

Parker was one of six children, all but one of whom received natural science or mathematics degrees. Mary Parker Miller had a Master of Science in mathematics from New York University in 1975; Juanita Parker Wynter had a Bachelor of Science in mathematics and chemistry, and a Master of Science from New York University; Julie Leslie Parker had a Bachelor of Science in mathematics from Fisk University and a master's degree in medical technology from Meharry Medical College; and Julius Parker Jr had a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan. The sixth sibling, Martha Parker, studied social sciences, gaining a master's degree from Temple University.  Parker's maternal first cousin Joan Murrell Owens, was a marine biologist who was one of the first Black women to receive a PhD in geology.  

Carolyn Parker graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) degree from Fisk University in 1938, then an A.M. (Master of Arts) in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1941.  Parker earned two master's degrees, one in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1941 and one in physics from MIT in 1951. According to family, her completion of a doctorate in physics at MIT was prevented by the leukemia that would kill her at age 48.  Leukemia was an occupational risk for workers on the Dayton Project.  Parker is the first Black woman known to have gained a postgraduate degree in physics. 

Parker taught in public schools in Rochelle, Florida from 1938–1939, Gainesville, Florida from 1939–1940, and Newport News, Virginia from 1941–1942.  She was an instructor in physics and mathematics at Bluefield State College from 1942–1943.  From 1943 to 1947, Parker was a research physicist on the Dayton Project, at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  The Dayton Project was part of the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons in World War II and into the Cold War.  The Monsanto Chemical Company led top-secret research work on using polonium as the initiator for atomic explosions.  Parker's sister, Juanita Parker Wynter, reported in an interview that her work there was "so secret she couldn't discuss it, even with us, her family". 

In 1947, Parker became an assistant professor of physics at Fisk University in Tennessee.  Parker was a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers, the American Physical Society, Sigma Upsilon Pi, and Delta Sigma Theta.  Carolyn Parker died in Gainesville, Florida on March 3, 1966 at the age of 48. She was Roman Catholic.  Her family reported that she died of leukemia, which they believe was radiation-induced.  Leukemia is regarded as a risk of occupational polonium exposure.  Workers on the Dayton Project had weekly tests for polonium excretion.  In 2000, the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program included leukemia as to compensate illness for workers at the Dayton Project who were, or should have been, regularly monitored for polonium levels and were employed there over a certain time.

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