UI's newest landmark designation honors first black American to earn chemistry Ph.D.

UI's newest landmark designation honors first black American to earn chemistry Ph.D.

URBANA — Back in the early 1900s, a young Tuskegee scholar by the name of St. Elmo Brady had two big-name mentors — acclaimed scientist George Washington Carver and noted educator Booker T. Washington.

The Louisville, Ky., native later become the first black person in the country to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry — at the University of Illinois in 1916 — and went on to substantially advance chemistry education at four historically black universities as a professor, researcher and mentor.

His legacy was honored Tuesday at the UI's Noyes Lab with a National Historic Chemical Landmark designation from the American Chemical Society.

Brady received his Ph.D. at a time when very few people reached that level, said Jonathan Sweedler, director of the UI's School of Chemical Sciences. He was just the 40th person overall to earn a Ph.D. from Illinois.

"If that was his only accomplishment, it would be notable. What he really did was take that degree and that expertise and basically moved education in chemistry at a number of locations forward. That multiplied his impact," Sweedler said.

Peter Dorhout, a UI chemistry alumnus and immediate past president of the society, said the landmark plaque recognizes the "outstanding accomplishments and leadership impact that Dr. Brady has had on the chemical profession," opening up chemistry education to generations of black students. He said the profession should continue those efforts, as "we're not where we want to be just yet."

Born in 1884, and named for the main character in a popular novel of the time, Brady received a bachelor's degree in 1908 from Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. He then taught for four years at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University.

It was there that he became friends with Booker T. Washington, who had founded Tuskegee, and George Washington Carver, an inventor known for developing products using peanuts.

"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 wrote.

In 1912, the UI offered Brady a scholarship to graduate school, and he earned his master's degree in 1914. Brady continued his studies under chemistry Professor Clarence Derick, earning a Ph.D. in 1916.

During his time at Illinois, Brady became the first African-American admitted to Phi Lambda Upsilon, the chemistry honor society, and was one of the first inducted into Sigma Xi, the science honorary society. He also published several papers in national journals.

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." He relished studying with "great minds" at Illinois.

Brady opted against a career in industry and returned to Tuskegee to teach for four years. He moved to Howard University in 1920 to chair its chemistry department, creating the first graduate program in chemistry at a historically black college or university.

In 1927, he returned to his alma mater and transformed Fisk's chemistry department — assembling an outstanding faculty, launching a summer program with the UI, creating a lecture series, teaching and continuing his own research, and raising money for its first modern chemistry building. He retired in 1952, but was soon recruited to build the chemistry department at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss. He died in 1966 at age 82.

"Over his career, he basically gave back to society and made it better," Sweedler said.

Each of those campuses will host a celebration of Brady's achievements and mount an American Chemical Society plaque in his honor during Black History Month. The UI also brought in undergraduates from those four institutions to present their research during Tuesday's daylong event.

Several of Brady's relatives were also on hand for the ceremony, including his granddaughter, Carol Brady Fonvielle of Savannah, Ga., and great-grandson, William Clay Fonvielle, who were thrilled that the university was honoring him.

"My grandfather first and foremost was an educator," said Carol Fonvielle, who graduated from Fisk with a degree in history. "This allows his efforts to go forward, and I'm so glad."

"He was every child's dream of a grandfather," she added, teaching her to play checkers, making sock puppets and taking her out for ice cream.

Sweedler said UI officials knew Brady was the first black student to earn a chemistry Ph.D. at Illinois but had to do additional research to find out whether he was the first in the country. Vera Mainz, former director of the UI's Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Lab, who had served on the American Chemical Society's landmarks committee, reached out to other colleges and universities that were operating 100 years ago to make sure no one preceded him, Sweedler said.

Jameatris Rimkus, a reference archivist at the UI Archives, dug up information about Brady's career, including letters of appreciation written by his former students when he retired from Fisk, detailing how he advised and mentored them.

"At every institution where he was a faculty member he helped build, or sometimes built from scratch, chemistry programs," she said. "He raised money to build buildings, so these schools would have modern laboratories."

Rimkus, who earned two degrees at the UI, said it's important to learn about early students at the university, particularly from underrepresented groups.

"Being African-American myself, I find that learning about early black students is a reminder to me that it can be done, that completing your degree is possible and that you deserve, that everybody deserves, an education, and you belong here," she said. "We've always belonged here, we've always been a part of the student body at the University of Illinois."

There are only a handful of other chemistry landmarks in Illinois, including one honoring Noyes Lab for the generations of renowned chemists and Nobel laureates who studied there.

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