Catalyzing Chemists — African Americans in the Chemical Sciences

Asha Bajaj
4 min readMar 6, 2021

#Chemists; #Alchemists; # AfricanAmericanChemists

Washington/Canadian-Media: Being a vital part of society for hundreds of years, chemists with alchemists coming before them have contributed to unraveling the curiosity of the people about the elements and their fascinating properties to the understanding and betterment of our world.

Chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1902. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

This article by the Library of Congress (LoC) highlights African American chemists Alice Ball, Norbert Rillieux, Marie Maynard Daly, and Percy Julius.

Growing up in Seattle, Alice Ball (1892–1916) earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Washington, one for pharmaceutical chemistry and one for pharmacy. After relocating to Hawaii, she became the first African American and woman to earn a master’s degree in chemistry at the College of Hawaii (known today as the University of Hawaii) and became the first female chemistry instructor at the University at the age of 23. She was also responsible for creating an injectable cure for leprosy patients by isolating the ethyl esters from the oil of Hydnocarpus wightianus, or chaulmoogra tree, seeds. Her work led to a treatment that was used until the 1940s and saved thousands of lives.

Social Hall for the Kalaupapa leper colony. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. //

Born in New Orleans and considered to be one of the earliest chemical engineers, Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894), became an instructor of applied mechanics at L’École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, now part of Université Paris-Saclay, France.

Rillieux began researching a more efficient sugar refining process and moved back to Louisiana at the prospect of being the head engineer at a new sugar refinery and completed his research and was granted Patent No. US4879 in 1846, which explained his “new and useful Improvements in the Method of Heating, Evaporating, and Cooling Liquids, especially intended for the manufacture of sugar.” This innovation allowed for more efficient production and the use of less fuel. Fun fact: Rillieux is a cousin of Edgar Degas, the French impressionist painter.

Asha Bajaj

I write on national and international Health, Politics, Business, Education, Environment, Biodiversity, Science, First Nations, Humanitarian, gender, women