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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

School to celebrate St. Elmo Brady, first African American to receive PhD in Chemistry

The School of Chemical Sciences at Illinois is hosting a celebration of diversity in the fields of chemical sciences and chemical engineering with two public events on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

The American Chemical Society will designate a national historic chemical landmark for St. Elmo Brady, the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States, earning it in 1916 at the University of Illinois.

The American Chemical Society will designate a national historic chemical landmark for St. Elmo Brady, the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States, earning it in 1916 at the University of Illinois.

St. Elmo Brady
St. Elmo Brady, the first African American to receive a PhD in Chemistry in the U.S.

This designation occurs Tuesday, Feb. 5, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. in Room 100 in Noyes Laboratory, 505 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana. Faculty members, staff, students and the public are welcome. Featured speakers are Illinois Provost Andreas C. Cangellaris; Jameatris Rimkus, an archivist at Illinois; and Peter Dorhout, 2018 president of the American Chemical Society and an Illinois alumnus who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1985. A reception follows the ceremony in the Chemistry Library, Room 170, Noyes Lab.

Immediately following the reception, No Belles, a performance celebrating remarkable women who overcame barriers and went on to make groundbreaking scientific contributions, will be presented at 7 p.m. in Room 100 of Noyes Lab.

The School of Chemical Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Illinois, is hosting the events.

St. Elmo Brady was born Dec. 22, 1884, in Louisville, Kentucky. Greatly influenced by Thomas W. Talley, a pioneer in the teaching of science, he received a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1908 at age 24 and immediately began teaching at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. It was there that he became friends with famous educator Booker T. Washington and famed scientist George Washington Carver. “It was the friendship of these two men that showed me the real value of giving one’s self and effort to help the other fellow,” Brady said.

In 1912, he was offered a scholarship by the U. of I. to pursue graduate studies, earning a master’s degree in chemistry in 1914. Brady continued his studies under professor Clarence G. Derick, earning a Ph.D. in 1916. His dissertation was titled “The divalent oxygen atom.”

Many years later, he told his students that when he went to graduate school, “they began with 20 whites and one other and ended, in 1916, with six whites and one other.” Brady lauded his educational experiences at the U. of I. as having “all the advantages of a great university, contact with great minds, and the use of all modern equipment.”

During his time at Illinois., Brady became the first African-American admitted to Phi Lambda Upsilon, the chemistry honor society, in 1914, and was one of the first inducted into Sigma Xi, the science honorary society, in 1915.

Brady published three scholarly abstracts in Science in 1914-15 on his work with Derick. He also collaborated with professor George Beal on a paper published in the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry titled “The hydrochloride method for the determination of alkaloids.”

Jonathan Sweedler, the director of the School of Chemical Sciences, said Brady’s most enduring legacy involves his efforts to enhance and create undergraduate curricula, graduate programs and fundraising efforts at four historically black colleges and universities: Fisk University, Tuskegee University, Howard University and Tougaloo College.

In conjunction with faculty members from the University of Illinois, he established a summer program at Fisk University in infrared spectroscopy that was open to faculty members from all colleges and universities. He served again as a faculty member at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1916-20; he was the chair of the chemistry department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., from 1920-27; the chair of the chemistry department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1927-52; and, following his retirement from Fisk University, served as the chair of the chemistry department at Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi, from 1952-66.

He died in 1966 in Washington, D.C., at age 82.

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