Hiding in plain sight: Black women in chemistry


By Stephani Maari Booker

Community Editor


Jennette E. Brown has made uncovering and spreading the history — indeed, the existence — of African American women in the chemistry field her mission for the past decade. Her new book, African American Women Chemists (Oxford University Press), is the result of those years of research.

The book profiles 25 Black women in academics, industry and government who are pioneers in chemistry from the years 1865 (post-Civil War) through about 1965 (Civil Rights Movement). One of those pioneers profiled in the book is Brown herself. Another is quite a familiar name to most Minnesotans.

After earning a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Minnesota in 1958, Brown went on to work for the drug company Merck and teach at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Black women chemists are so rare in history that the author had to include herself in the book.

“Actually, I wasn’t going to do that,” Brown said about including her own profile, “but the book was short, so I needed to add more.” The MSR interviewed Brown when she was in the Twin Cities to participate in the Science Museum of Minnesota’s African Americans in Science event, which included a dinner and meet-and-greet for students on January 13 and the public festival on January 14.

African American Women Chemists is the result of Brown’s work since she retired from teaching in 2002, but it’s not a final work. She is planning a sequel that covers the Civil Rights Movement era and beyond.

“The second book will [include] some current women,” Brown said, “whoever will talk to me — because I do this by oral histories — and also some women who for some reason got omitted from the [first] book, or if I discover new women who should have been in the first book.”

Beyond the obvious racism and sexism that keeps the existence of African Americans and women in science little known, chemistry in particular is a hidden profession. In other sciences or science-related fields, the solo inventor or discoverer of a specific product used by the public is glorified, their names — almost always White male names — exalted in school books, TV documentaries and movie biographies.

With chemistry, however, it’s more like what the chemical company BASF’s commercial used to say: “We don’t make your favorite products — we make your favorite products better.” One example: Dr. Percy Julian, the subject of a PBS documentary aired a couple of years ago, created a process to cost-effectively produce specific synthetic hormones that made the birth control pill possible.

The pill is one of the most important inventions in history, yet very few know about Julian’s role in making its invention possible.

Even if a single chemist is responsible for creating or discovering a specific ingredient or important process, as Julian was, Brown said that in industrial chemistry, “You’re not supposed to take [sole] credit for it… You work in teams, and publications are by a team. Very rarely will one person stand out in a corporation.”

The American Chemical Society (ACS), of which Brown is a member, helped with the creation of the Julian documentary, Brown affirmed. The ACS is also working to get a documentary made about Dr. Marie Daly, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the U.S. — and, of course, one of the subjects of Brown’s book.

Another subject of the book is a familiar name in Minnesota: Dr. Reatha Clark King, the research chemist who went on to become president of Metro State University, vice president of General Mills, and president of the General Mills Foundation.

“She is such a classy lady!” Brown enthused about King. “I mean, [she’s] an incredible lady. I’ve been to Minnesota twice since I graduated [from the university], and the second time I did [King’s] oral history.”

Speaking of General Mills, “One of the things the ACS says is, ‘Everything is chemistry,’” Brown emphasized. “There are things that we [chemists] do for health, for human services, and for food. Very, very few of the food items that you make have not had a chemist work on them. Cereals — Minnesota is the home of General Mills, and they would say that, too.

Brown’s work on making Black women chemists’ visible is constant: This writer mentioned to her in the interview that the first Black woman chemist she ever met worked for the Domino’s Pizza headquarters in Michigan. 

“You’re telling me this — now I’ve got to find her!” Brown declared. This writer told her that all she remembered was that the woman worked at Domino’s Pizza in the mid-to-late 1980s, ’86-’87, and her first name was Stephanie.

“One of the things that you’ll notice in my book is that I have mostly academics. It is so hard to find industrial chemists” such as the writer’s old acquaintance, Brown said.

“With academics, most of them — because they have to get grants and everything else — everything about them is on the web. With industry, unless the industry thinks you’re a superstar, there’s nothing on the [industry’s or company’s] website.

“…Even if I have a name and a company that [chemists] work for, [I can’t] go to the company and ask them. They will not give you the information.

“My mission is to get students and anyone [else] to find out about chemists,” Brown, who is also a member of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), continued. “We say that these women were hiding in plain sight: There’s things that they did that nobody knew about and didn’t know. I didn’t know, actually, until I started doing some research on them.

“President Obama currently talks about world-class scientists, and he talks about growing our own. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in helping young girls, and boys, too, get into science and know that they can do this.

“This book that I’ve written [has] 25 women who are role models, so that if the girls read the stories they can say, ‘Oh yeah, I can do that.’ Because these women got into science when there was nobody there.

“Now there are a lot of women who are in science, but we still need to get more girls interested in it. It doesn’t have to be just a laboratory science; with a degree in chemistry, you can do lots of things, not just work in a laboratory. But they need to know the science.”


For more information about the book African American Women Chemists, go to www.oup.com. For more information about African Americans and chemistry, go to www.NOBCChE.org.

Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to sbooker@spokesman-recorder.com.