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Ancestors of Science: St. Elmo Brady



St. Elmo Brady (1884 - 1966)

Service -- as well as scholarship -- has often been a hallmark of scientists, and St. Elmo Brady is no exception. After becoming the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry, he dedicated himself to supporting the pursuit of doctorates in chemistry for other African-Americans.

Born on 22 December 1884, in Louisville, Kentucky, Brady attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where Thomas Talley, chair of the chemistry department, became his role model. Upon earning a B.S. (Fisk University's records do not indicate his academic major) in 1908 at age 24, he took a teaching position at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute.

Although Brady valued his teaching career, he wanted to continue his education. In 1912, when the chemistry department at the University of Illinois offered Brady a scholarship to pursue graduate study, he left Tuskegee for Urbana-Champaign. While doing graduate study at Illinois, he published three abstracts in Science in 1914 and 1915. Brady finished his M.S. in chemistry in 1914 and pursued his doctorate studying the relationship between acid strength and structure of organic acids. In 1916, Brady completed his Ph.D. at Illinois with a thesis entitled "The Divalent Oxygen Atom." Brady would later tell his students about his graduate school experience, "They began with 20 whites and one other and ended, in 1916 with six whites and one other."

The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), named Brady its "Man of the Month" in November 1916.

After completing his doctorate, Brady returned to Tuskegee to teach chemistry. Four years later, he accepted the chair of the chemistry department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He would return to Fisk in 1927, accepting a position as chair of the chemistry department. Though he officially retired from Fisk in 1952, Brady continued to teach at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Eventually, Brady moved to Washington, D.C, where he lived until his death on December 25, 1966, at 82.

Brady was known for elucidating the chemical composition of magnolia seeds and castor beans, but his greatest legacy is his devotion to advancing science education for African-Americans. As a professor, he established:

  • The first graduate chemistry program at a historically black college.

  • A lecture series that invited recognized chemists to share their research with the Fisk community.

  • An open summer program to teach faculty from various colleges and universities infrared spectroscopy techniques, in conjunction with faculty from the University of Illinois.

  • A strong undergraduate curricula and fundraising campaign at all four historically black schools where he taught.


  • M. Brown. St. Elmo Brady, available at (The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences, 2000)

  • C. Reslmaier, Brady St. Elmo, Ph.D., (1884-1966), Chemist, available at (JustGarciaHill, 2005)

  • St. Elmo Brady (1884-1966) available at (Chemistry at Illinois, 2005)

  • St. Elmo Brady, available at (Journal of Chemical Education, 2003)