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Perspective: Stumbling Through History: Discovering Unsung African-American Chemists

Lawrence Knox (Credit: The Edmund S. Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library)

While continuing to teach and do research in physical organic chemistry, our native field, we -- the authors of this Perspective -- independently began to investigate the discipline’s history. By the 1980s, this avocation became a professional commitment. Given the coincidence of our interests and backgrounds, we went in search of a topic we could collaborate on.

With help at critical moments from established figures -- Paul Bartlett, Willard Libby, William Doering -- both Knox brothers managed to make important contributions to chemistry.

Meanwhile, one of us (Weininger) had become a chemistry editor of the New Dictionary of Scientific Biography, writing an entry on Paul Bartlett, America’s premier 20th century physical organic chemist (and Gortler’s Ph.D. supervisor). In the course of examining Bartlett’s papers in the Harvard University Archives, Weininger came across a file for Lawrence Knox, a name familiar to decades of students studying organic reaction mechanisms. Knox was the graduate student co-author of a 1938 paper (access may require a site license or ACS membership), with Bartlett, that immediately became a classic. What Knox’s file revealed -- and what hardly any of the readers of his paper knew -- was that Knox was African American. We had found our topic.

As we delved into the life and career of Larry Knox (as he was universally known), we learned that his older brother. William Knox Jr., had received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1935, 5 years before Larry received his in organic chemistry from Harvard. (Another Knox, Clinton, received a Ph.D. in history in 1940. He was William and Larry’s younger brother.) William and Larry were two of about 30 African Americans earning Ph.D.s in all branches of chemistry between 1916 and 1940.

Elijah Knox, the brothers’ grandfather, was born a slave in North Carolina and became a skilled carpenter. He bought his freedom in 1846 and then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which had a long-established community of “Black Yankees.” One of his sons, William Knox Sr., started the drive for education that led to the astonishing rise of Elijah’s grandsons. A high school graduate, William Sr. earned the highest score in the 1903 New Bedford Civil Service Examination and became a post office accounts clerk. (William Sr. and his wife, Estella Briggs, also had two daughters; they were not given the same educational opportunities as the sons, although they both had postsecondary educations.)

(Credit: Photo reproduced with permission, courtesy of about...timeMagazine.)
William Knox (left) with Walter Cooper, a colleague at Kodak Research.

In those days, scientifically educated African Americans had few professional options. Those who didn’t go to medical school (mostly segregated and leading to segregated careers) wound up teaching at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Their pedagogical efforts were vital to the African-American community. But these scientists had little opportunity to do research, since research facilities were very poor at the underfunded HBCUs.

Bill and Larry’s post-undergraduate experiences precisely mirror this broad description. After earning bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, they became junior faculty members at Johnson C. Smith and Howard universities (Bill) and Morehouse College (Larry). After several years of teaching, they each went on to earn master’s degrees (Bill at MIT; Larry at Stanford University), then Ph.D.s. Bill’s work at MIT resulted in two publications and unpublished contributions toward the solution of a difficult experimental problem: the deceptively simple 2NO2/N2O4 equilibrium, which was still under investigation 25 years after his graduation. Larry’s Ph.D. thesis at Harvard concerned a topic at the cutting edge of physical organic chemistry. Bartlett, his Ph.D. adviser, called it “the neatest and prettiest job of any research student I have yet had.” It was considered a classic for more than half a century.

The net result of the brothers’ academic success was to push them a little higher up in the severely constricted HBCU world. It would take the cataclysm of World War II, which generated unprecedented demand for scientifically trained personnel, to force open those constrictions.

In 1942, Bill wrote to Willard Libby, whose team was trying to enrich natural uranium in the U-235 isotope to create material for an atomic bomb. The project was encountering severe corrosion problems, and in early 1943, Libby invited Bill to join his group to help tackle those problems. Bill remained with the group for 2 1/2 years, becoming head of the corrosion section. As Bill told an interviewer, it was the first time that he felt himself a member of “an active scientific community.”

Larry’s breakthrough came a year later. American soldiers fighting in the Pacific were being debilitated by malaria as much as by enemy bullets. In 1944, Robert B. Woodward of Harvard and his graduate student William Doering announced the synthesis of quinine, which was the top antimalaria drug. Doering obtained a position at Columbia University and funding to continue his quinine research. When he advertised for a postdoctoral fellow, Larry responded. Doering knew Larry’s work from his years at Harvard and hired him. The position lasted only a year, but it set the stage for a long, productive collaboration.

Both brothers came into their own in the postwar period, as their personal and social lives took very different paths. In 1945, with Libby’s help, Bill was hired by the Kodak Research Laboratories in Rochester, New York. He was the second African-American Ph.D. ever hired by Kodak. During his career there, Bill published three papers and obtained 21 patents. He was the “go-to guy” for coatings and surfactants and rose to the position of group leader for surfactant studies.

Yet his professional accomplishments could not shield him from racism and discrimination. For example, Bill had difficulty obtaining decent housing for his family. His experiences impelled him to work for decent housing for minority families and better education for minority youth. He became a leading figure in the Rochester civil rights movement, for which he received numerous awards. Bill Knox died in 1995 at age 91.

Larry’s career was dominated by his commitment to chemistry. Larry left Columbia in 1945 and spent a few years in industry. Doering contacted him in 1948 and offered the directorship of Hickrill Laboratory, a private research institute in the small town of Katonah, New York. The laboratory was the brainchild of Doering’s first graduate student, Ruth Alice Norman Weil, a Smith College graduate who decided to study chemistry at Columbia after marrying Sylvan Weil in 1927 and bearing three children. She eventually earned a Ph.D. and, as a result of conversations with Doering, decided to establish a laboratory on her estate dedicated to pursuing fundamental problems in organic chemistry of his choosing.

From 1948 to 1958, Doering and Larry Knox published a number of groundbreaking papers from Hickrill. Their particular focus was a class of molecules, called aromatic hydrocarbons, that are distinguished by their stability and restrained reactivity. In the 1930s, the German theoretician Erich Hückel had claimed that certain electronic features were essential to aromatic stability; Doering and Knox set out to synthesize a group of molecules with those features. They succeeded, and the new molecules exhibited the properties predicted by the theory. The results have had a major impact on the discipline of organic chemistry.

Stephen Weininger (Courtesy of Stephen Weininger)

Leon Gortler (Courtesy of Leon Gortler)

Once again, however, professional success did not guarantee personal equilibrium. Because of opposition from some Katonah residents, Larry and his family lived in a house on the Weil estate rather than in town. The situation was ideal for Larry but much less so for his son and wife, who felt isolated. Their marriage under stress, the Knoxes divorced. Larry married Anne Juren, a white secretary at Hickrill. In response to the hostility they faced as a result of their mixed marriage, Larry and Anne expatriated to Mexico City where Larry found employment with Syntex, the company that had recently introduced the first synthetic birth control drugs. In the course of 5 years at Syntex (1959 to 65), Larry co-authored 10 papers and was awarded more than 40 patents. His career was cut tragically short by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in early 1966, just short of his 60th birthday.

When we sent a copy of our article about the Knox brothers to a chemistry colleague with historical interests, he responded, “Just think of all the black talent that was wasted over the benighted decades. ... Our country has a toxic legacy in that area.” That is certainly one of the messages of this story, but there is another. With help at critical moments from established figures -- Paul Bartlett, Willard Libby, William Doering -- both Knox brothers managed to make important contributions to chemistry. They showed what perseverance, courage, and commitment can accomplish.

Perhaps the strongest message of all is that science moves forward via the contributions of many scientists of all stripes, not only the great names -- a fact that a proper reading of the history of science must acknowledge.

Bringing the story of William and Lawrence Knox to prominence has been a moving experience for us. We hope readers will be similarly inspired.

Stephen Weininger taught organic chemistry for 40 years at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. After retiring in 2005, he continued studies, begun in the 1980s, of the history of chemistry. Leon Gortler is professor emeritus of chemistry at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He has been active in the history of chemistry since the late 1970s and has conducted more than 50 oral interviews with important American academic and industrial chemists.

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