Dr. Reatha Clark King on the sources of her success

Dr. Reatha Clark King

Dr. Reatha Clark King said that it had been the “hard work, education, training, and work as a research chemist” as well as the initial push of family, neighbors, teachers and church to make something out of herself, that prepared her with the abilities and confidence to achieve success—not only at a professional level, but in life with anything she does.

Dr. King was born in Bon Pavo, Georgia, in 1936. She was raised on a sharecropper’s farm in a small, rural town of Moultrie, Georgia. When she and her sister were about 9 or ten years old, they started working on the farm.  

Dr. King said, “Field work was hard work picking cotton, but the harder you worked, the more you earned. This experience taught me how to work well with others and created a great work ethic and a strong desire in me to always do my best. This is the approach I brought to science.” 

At church, Dr. King sang in the choir and attended Sunday School. “The entire community was always telling the children to make something out of your life. They wanted us to have more opportunities and to do better than them,” she said.

Dr. King said there was “absolutely no encouragement” for Black girls to pursue a career in science. After graduating from high school as class valedictorian, she attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. “In society during those times,” Dr. King recalled, “young Black women were expected to only major in home economics. With that degree, you could teach in high school or become a nurse.”

During Dr. King’s second semester in 1955, she met Dr. Alfred S. Spriggs, chair of the Chemistry Department at Clark College, who encouraged her to consider chemistry. He told her about her options for greater opportunity and salary. 

She said she “heard about George Washington Carver and developed an interest in the idea. I researched it some more afterwards and decided to change my major from home economics to chemistry.” 

Dr. King earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry with highest honors from Clark College in 1958. She entered the University of Chicago that year after being awarded the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for graduate study. She graduated in 1960 with a master’s degree in chemistry. Dr. King completed her Ph.D. in chemistry in 1962.

“For a Ph.D.,” Dr. King stated, “you must do original research which would add to the body of knowledge. You are expected to produce an invention or design. If you invent something, you may not seek a patent, but you must at least design it.”  

From 1963 to 1968, Dr. King worked as a research chemist with the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), on a project team that studied the heat formed from gaseous fluoride compounds. 

 “I would melt solids and research the mixture of fused salts and the gasses that were released,” Dr. King said. “Fluorine is an element and is a gas. At NBS, I researched the heat formed from fluorine mixed with gasses.” 

Dr. King’s and the project team’s findings were published in numerous journals and contributed to the success of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) space program. Dr. King explained, “Thermochemical research involves the study of heat applied to things and their chemical reactions. Fused salts are things like sodium chloride, table salt and other solids. 

“High temperatures will melt solids where you can study the mixture of fused solids or salts. When you melt metals, they flow like lava. You can then measure the heat of fused salts. You can combine fused salts into alloys, which is the mixing of metal.”

Dr. King’s work helped make the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. She designed a special device to measure the heat for rocket fuel systems. She studied oxygen difluoride, a very toxic, combustible compound. Based on her research, NASA used this compound in the fuel system for the Apollo 11 space mission. 

Dr. King taught chemistry at York College in New York from 1968 to 1977. She also served as the associate dean of natural science and mathematics, and dean of academic affairs there. In 1977 she earned a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University. Dr. King did all this while being married and raising two young children.

 Later that year, Dr. King was hired as president at Metropolitan State College in St. Paul, Minnesota. From 1988 to May 31, 2002, she served as president and executive director of the General Mills Foundation and vice president of General Mills, Inc. From June 2002 to May 31, 2003, she served as chairperson of the Foundation’s board of trustees. 

She has also worked with the Governance Board of Organizations, a working body of directors of nonprofit organizations. As a philanthropist, she has served as a senior advisor of the Council of Foundations. 

Dr. King said, “Being a research chemist will relate to other areas of one’s life. Being a scientist prepares you for life and leads you to do work of high quality.”

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