Field of Science

Delivering a few Knox

When I was a kid I was inspired by the story of George Washington Carver, the indomitable African-American agricultural scientist who overcame horrific experiences of racism in the late nineteenth century and rose to fame for his science and humanity. I remember especially being impressed by his harnessing of the humble peanut plant and turning peanuts into an astounding variety of other food and textile products. The story of this remarkable man continues to serves as an inspiration.

Unfortunately I did not hear of too many African-American chemists later, with Percy Julian being a noteworthy exception. Thus I am now gratified to read the remarkable story of the Knox brothers- Larry and William- brought to us by Profs. Gortler and Weininger of Brooklyn College (CUNY) and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Larry and William were grandsons of slaves in North Carolina who had bought their freedom. Both brothers climbed the rungs of a racism-ridden educational ladder, obtained PhD degrees at MIT and Harvard, contributed to the war effort and pursued successful careers in industry. An African-American chemist- let alone two brothers- getting a science PhD in those days was wholly exceptional. The article puts their achievements in perspective by emphasizing the statistics; "That one family should produce almost 7% of all black Ph.D. chemists over a 25-year period is remarkable—especially a family with its roots in the slave-holding South".

Larry obtained his PhD with Harvard chemist Paul Bartlett, perhaps the leading American physical organic chemist of the late twentieth century, and followed up by working with the distinguished chemist William von Doering. William worked on the Manhattan Project with future Nobel laureate Willard Libby who pioneered radiocarbon dating. The Knox brothers' accomplishments were outstanding even as they grappled with the scourge of discrimination; at one point, Doering and Larry had driven up to Chicago for an ACS meeting and had to sleep in the car because no motel would admit a black man, even in the North.

Gortler and Weininger deserve commendation for bringing us the story of these unsung heroes. Incidentally, the ACS is celebrating the chemical contributions of African-American chemists this month. Eleven outstanding chemists are featured in the collage, with the twelfth block left empty. It seems to me that the Knox brothers more than qualify to fill this block, and I am disappointed that the ACS left them out.


  1. All is far from perfect even now. But from what I've seen, the problem seems to be that many blacks are avoiding science courses. For details see --

    Start with the 5th paragaph


  2. The situation seems sad indeed. The problems as usual are probably deep-seated and multifactorial.


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