A forgotten pioneering African-American physicist & correcting the record

Carolyn Beatrice Parker

This is Carolyn Beatrice Parker (b 1917). Up to now, people said the first African-American woman physicist who reached PhD level was in the 70s. But Carolyn Beatrice Parker researched polonium on the Dayton Project, part of WWII’s Manhattan project. She completed her physics PhD at MIT in the early 50s, but leukemia, likely polonium-induced, stopped her being able to defend it. She died at 47. Read more about her in her new Wikipedia page.

Her story highlighted another error in the record: she was related to marine biologist Joan Murrell Owens, another pioneering African-American woman scientist. She was credited with being the first to get a PhD in geology, in 1984: but that was likely Marguerite Thomas Williams in 1941.

The biggest shock, though: the widely credited first African-American woman to get a PhD in botany, Jesse Jarue Mark, turned out not to be a woman. Bryan Clark found this out when he tracked down a photo of JJ Mark. (Many years ago, Jesse’s name became Jessie, and the error spread for decades.) Thanks, Bryan!

A different Jessie, Jessie Isabelle Price, was the subject of a new set of errors – this time started by Buzzfeed. Got it corrected when Danielle Lee weighed in on Twitter – thanks Danielle!

More to check out since the last post:

New images slideshow


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Yvonne Young Clark (b 1929) was the first African-American woman to get a degree in mechanical engineering, in 1951. She helped design the containers that Neil Armstrong used to bring the first moon rocks to earth!

Cheryl Hayashi is a Hawaii-born biologist and MacArthur Fellow, who specialized in the genetic structure of spider silk. She is now professor and director of comparative biology research at the American Museum of Natural History.

Carolyn Beatrice Parker (1917 – 1966) – physicist from above.

Deborah Shiu-Ian Jin (b 1968) is another physicist who died young – at 47 from cancer. She was another MacArthur Fellow and a pioneer in a type of quantum chemistry.

Janie L. Miles (b 1958) was the first African-American woman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. She earned a B.S. in general engineering in 1980: she was the only African-American in the first class of women after the prohibition against women students was lifted.

Featured scientists needing images

Some people you may not know! Inspired? You could help by emailing the libraries at any of the institutions they were associated with, to try to get a photo that could be used on Wikipedia? (More on what Wikipedia needs here.)

More about Betty Harris (b 1940) on Wikipedia.


A. Oveta Fuller (b 1955) on Wikipedia.


Lonnie Standifer (1926 – 1996) on Wikipedia.


New pages on Wikipedia

Wikipedia pages for Carolyn Parker, Lonnie Standifer, and Janie L. Mines were all new. Some highlights from other new Wikipedia pages for scientists from under-represented groups:

  • Vera Mae Green (1928 – 1982) – African-American anthropologist who worked on methods for studying African-American communities. (She needs a photo, too!)
  • Olabisi Ugbebor (b 1951) is the first female professor of mathematics in Nigeria – her page is just a mention though. Any takers for expanding and tracking down a photo?
  • Harriette Pipes McAdoo (1940 – 2009) – another pioneering African-American anthropologist.


Hilda Bastian

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