Our list of influential Black chemists is as diverse as the field of study. These leaders in the field of chemistry include chemical engineers, biochemists, pharmacists, nuclear chemists, researchers, educators, and more. These innovators are doing groundbreaking work and advancing the field in areas like nanotechnology, molecular chemistry, and medicine, helping to prepare the next generation of chemists.
The field of chemistry is as diverse as the men and women who hold influence within their respective subdisciplines. The influential Black chemists in our list are leaders in the field of chemistry and include chemical engineers, pharmacists, educators, CEOs, and scientists. Their contributions span a vast spectrum from scientific research benefiting public health to leading one of the largest pharmacy groups in the country to educating future generations of chemists.
Chemistry is the study of the fundamental materials, the properties of matter at the level of atoms and molecules, and processes that make up the universe and everything within it, living and nonliving. They seek to understand substances and how they behave, or to create new compounds. Chemists may specialize in biochemistry, neurochemistry, nuclear chemistry, or theoretical chemistry.
According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, physical science degrees (including chemistry and physics) comprise 1.5% of bachelor’s conferred. However, the physical sciences were more popular, making up 2.5% of bachelor’s degrees obtained by Black students. Despite the relative popularity, Black students make up only about 5% of physical science degree holders in the most recent data as opposed to 10% of graduates across all disciplines. The piqued interest of younger Black students in scientific endeavor is no doubt attributable to programs and organizations which promote STEM education to students of color early in their educational lives.
The National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers seeks to diversify global leaders in STEM by enriching their academic, development, leadership, and philanthropic endeavors throughout the entirety of their careers. The NOBCChE has sponsored a National Science Bowl for the past two decades in an effort to promote careers in science and technology to K-12 students. Additionally, the NOBCChE has awarded $1.6 million over the last twelve years for scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and graduate students of color studying STEM. The group continues to enrich the lives and careers of Black graduates after post-secondary education through professional development and advancement.
Prominent African American scholars in the field are researching, publishing, and teaching in areas such as the development of chemical lasers (Kennedy), chemical processes in free radicals (Francisco), the chemistry of Fluorine-19 (Anderson), the molecular details of the mechanism of antibiotics, bacterial glycobiology, membrane protein expression, and tail-anchored protein targeting (Clemons).
28 Influential Black Chemists From the Last 30 Years
The Black scholars in our list were identified as highly cited and searched people using our machine-powered Influence Ranking algorithm, which produces a numerical score of academic achievements, merits, and citations across Wikipedia, wikidata, Crossref, Semantic Scholar and an ever-growing body of data.
Influence is dynamic, therefore some of the chemists listed are contemporary scholars while others may be historical figures. In both cases, according to our AI, these are the cited and searched Black chemists over the past 30 years.
Elmer Lucille Allen is a ceramic artist and chemist who graduated from Nazareth College in 1953. Both her father and brother were named Elmer and the family chose to name her Elmer Lucille. She became the first African-American chemist at Brown-Forman in 1966.
Lilia Ann Abron is an entrepreneur and chemical engineer. In 1972, Abron became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in chemical engineering. Early life Abron was born in Memphis, Tennessee,was the second of four daughters. She was born prematurely, at home, and had to be rushed to the hospital by her aunt in a cab, as ambulances were not available for African Americans at the time.
Gloria Long Anderson is the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Chemistry at Morris Brown College, and its vice president for academic affairs. She has served as interim president of Morris Brown, and as vice chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She was a pioneer in the field of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and is known for her studies of fluorine-19 and solid rocket propellants.
Rosalind G. Brewer is an American businesswoman, and the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance since March 2021. She is one of only two Black women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies . Brewer is the first African American woman to become CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, group president and COO of Starbucks, and CEO of Sam’s Club.
Emmett W. Chappelle was an American scientist who made valuable contributions in the fields of medicine, philanthropy, food science, and astrochemistry. His achievements led to his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work on bioluminescence, in 2007. Being honored as one of the 100 most distinguished African American scientists of the 20th Century, he was also one of the members of the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society of Photobiology, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Society...
William “Bil” Clemons, Jr. is an American structural biologist and Professor of Biochemistry at Caltech. He is best known for his work solving the atomic structure of the ribosome with dissertation advisor, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Venki Ramakrishnan. He is also known for his work on the structure and function of proteins involved in membrane translocation and docking of proteins, including the membrane protein translocation channel SecY, chaperones involved in the targeting of tail-anchored membrane proteins in the Get pathway, and signal recognition proteins of the Twin-arginine tran...
Leodis Davis is a retired professor of chemistry at the University of Iowa. Early life and education Leodis Davis was born on September 25, 1933 in Stamps, Arkansas, the oldest of two sons. He was raised primarily in Kansas City, Missouri, where his parents relocated in search of work. He was interested in science from an early age and cited his high school teachers’ influence as inspiring. After graduating from high school, Davis was offered several college scholarships and chose to attend the University of Kansas City , where desegregation had recently made admission available to black stud...
Slayton A. Evans Jr. was an American chemist and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was a leading researcher into organophosphorus chemistry. His research led to a greater understanding of the functions of organophosphate compounds and innovations in methods to produce chemical compounds for pharmaceutical drugs.
Lloyd Noel Ferguson was an American chemist. Early life As a child in Oakland, California, Ferguson had a backyard laboratory in which he developed a moth repellent, a silverware cleanser, and a lemonade powder. He graduated from Oakland Technical High School in 1934, at the age of 16. After working in construction and as a railway porter in order to earn enough money to pay for college, he did his undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley and received a Ph.D. from the same university in 1943, the first African American to earn a chemistry Ph.D. there. During his time a...
Gwendolyn Wilson Fowler was an African-American pharmacist, the first black woman licensed in Iowa. She also became the first African-American woman from Iowa to serve in the United States Foreign Service, when she was posted to Vietnam in the 1950s. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987.
Joseph S. Francisco is an American scientist and the former president of the American Chemical Society from 2009 to 2010. He currently serves as the President’s Distinguished Professor of Earth and Environmental Science and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as the Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, Elmer H. and Ruby M.Cordes Chair in chemistry at University of Nebraska in Lincoln until 2018.
Loney Clinton Gordon was an African-American chemist and laboratory researcher who assisted doctors Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering with bacteriological virulence research leading to the creation of the pertussis vaccine.
Bettye Washington Greene was born Bettye Washington in Fort Worth, Texas. She spent her entire career as a research chemist with Dow Chemical Company and is best remembered as a pioneering black woman scientist.
Bettye Washington (as she was then known) attended segregated public schools in Fort Worth, graduating from all-black I.M. Terrell High School. She then attended Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1955. The same year, Washington married William Miller Greene, a former Air Force Captain. The couple had three children.
Bettye Washington Greene then entered a doctoral program in chemistry at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, where she worked under the German-born physical chemist, Wilfried Heller (1903–1982). She obtained her PhD degree in physical chemistry in 1962.
Greene’s doctoral dissertation, Determination of Particle Size Distributions in Emulsions by Light Scattering, was published as a book in 1965.
James Andrew Harris was an American radiochemist who was involved in the discovery of elements 104 and 105 . Harris was the head of the Heavy Isotopes Production Group, part of the Nuclear Chemistry Division of University of California-Berkeley. Harris is known for being the first African American to contribute to the discovery of new elements.
Walter Lincoln Hawkins was an American chemist and engineer widely regarded as a pioneer of polymer chemistry. For thirty-four years he worked at Bell Laboratories, where he was instrumental in designing a long-lasting plastic to sheath telephone cables, enabling the introduction of telephone services to thousands of Americans, especially those in rural communities. In addition to his pioneering research, Hawkins is also known for his advocacy efforts for minority students. He also served as the chairman of Montclair State University in 1973. Amongst his many awards, Hawkins was the first Afr...
John Edward Hodge was an American chemist, born in Kansas City, Kansas, best known for establishing the mechanisms in the Maillard reaction pathway. Early life Hodge was born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1914 to mother Annabelle Hodge and father John Alfred Hodge. He had one younger sister, Dorothy.
Lisa Perez Jackson is an American chemical engineer who served as the administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency from 2009 to 2013. She was the first African American to hold that position.
Chemist and Morgan State University chemistry professor Alvin P. Kennedy was born on June 1, 1955, to Helen Augusta Kennedy and Amos Paul Kennedy. He grew up in Grambling, Louisiana, where he attended Grambling Laboratory School and later Grambling High School. Kennedy attended Grambling State University during which time he participated in several research internships, graduating with his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1978. He pursued graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley with funding from an AT&T Bell Labs fellowship.
His graduate research focused on the development of chemical lasers and the kinetics associated with spontaneous reactions. Kennedy received his Ph.D. degree in physical chemistry in 1985. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Kennedy was hired at Dow Chemical Company as a senior research chemist in central research, where he developed new polymer systems for microelectronic applications. He also produced sixteen internal publications and was promoted to project leader in central research at Dow in 1989. In 1991, Kennedy was appointed assistant professor of chemistry at North Carolina A&T State University, and in 1996, he was promoted to associate professor. He also received a NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)/ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) Research Fellowship at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1997. In 2000, Kennedy joined the faculty at Morgan State University as associate professor of chemistry and chair of the chemistry department. Kennedy has been a tenured professor at Morgan State University since 2002. Kennedy received several patents throughout his career including two patents on laminates of polymers in 1993 and 1995. In 1998, he patented the Resin transfer molding process for composites. Kennedy has been the recipient of several honors including his 1998 appearance in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers and his 2008 Henry McBay Outstanding Teacher of the Year award from the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers 
Cato T. Laurencin, M.D., Ph.D., FREng SLMH, is an American engineer, physician, scientist, innovator and a University Professor of the University of Connecticut . He is currently the Chief Executive Officer of The Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering.
Lynk (née Beebe Steven) was born in Mason, a small town in western Tennessee lying about halfway between Jackson and Memphis. She is one of the first female, African-American, professional chemists in the US. Her early life and social background are poorly documented. For example, the educational backgrounds and professions of her parents are not known.
Beebe Steven, as she was then known, obtained a degree in 1892, at the age of 20, from Lane College, a historically black liberal-arts college located in Jackson, Tennessee. Lane had been founded only ten years earlier, in 1882. It is not known whether Steven entered the college early, or whether she pursued a two-year degree there. Since Lane specialized in the preparation of teachers and ministers, it is likely that Steven’s initial training was in teaching.
Samuel Proctor Massie, Jr. was a chemist who studied a variety of chemicals that contributed towards the development of therapeutic drugs, including the chemistry of phenothiazine. As one of the African American scientists and technicians on the Manhattan Project to develop atomic bombs in World War II Massie worked with uranium isotopes. Massie was named one of the top 75 distinguished contributors to chemistry in history by Chemical and Engineering News.
Henry Ransom Cecil McBay was an American chemist and teacher. McBay won numerous awards for his teaching and mentoring, including the American Chemical Society Award . McBay also co-founded the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers .
Thomas O. Mensah is a Ghanaian-American chemical engineer and inventor who contributed to the development of fiber optic manufacturing and nanotechnology. He has 14 patents, and was inducted into the US National Academy of Inventors in 2015. In 2017, Dr. Mensah served as Editor-in-Chief of the textbook Nanotechnology Commercialization, published by John Wiley & Sons.
Dr. Kenneth Olden is a scientist whose research revolves around diseases, such as cancers, and how chemicals and environmental factors affect them. He was director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and National Toxicology Program, being the first African-American to head an National Institutes of Health institute, a position he held from 1991 to 2005. He was also the director of the Environmental Protection Agency and overseer of the Integrated Risk Information System . He is a scientist who expressed that socioeconomic factors are related to cancer survival rates a...
Jennie Patrick is an American chemical engineer and educator. As a high school student, she participated in the integration of Alabama’s public schools. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979, she became one of the first African American women in the United States to earn a doctorate in traditional chemical engineering. Note that Lilia Abron gained her PhD in 1972. In industry, she did pioneering work on supercritical fluid extraction. Her educational work has focused on the mentoring of African American and female students.
Larry Robinson is an American professor and academic administrator, who is the current President of Florida A&M University, a historically black university. Career Robinson, an African American, started his college education at LeMoyne-Owen College and graduated from Memphis State University now the University of Memphis, in 1979 with summa cum laude honors and a B.S. degree in chemistry. He received a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Washington University in St. Louis in 1984. In that same year, he joined the research staff of Oak Ridge National Laboratory , where he was a research scientist a...
Omowunmi “Wunmi” A. Sadik is a Nigerian professor, chemist, and inventor working at Binghamton University. She has developed microelectrode biosensors for detection of drugs and explosives and is working on the development of technologies for recycling metal ions from waste, for use in environmental and industrial applications. In 2012, Sadik co-founded the non-profit Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization.
Margaret Ellen Mayo Tolbert is a biochemist who worked as a professor and director of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee University, and was an administrative chemist at British Petroleum. From 1996 to 2002 she served as director of the New Brunswick Laboratory, becoming the first African American and the first woman in charge of a Department of Energy lab.
Isiah Manuel Warner is the Boyd and Phillip W. West Professor of Surface and Analytical Chemistry and the Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at Louisiana State University. He’s also a professor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Warner has won numerous national and international awards for chemistry and mentoring of students in the sciences. He has published over 350 refereed publications and has several patents.