APS News | People and History

Edward Bouchet Continues to Inspire

Published Jun 01, 2016
Edward Bouchet

At a time when hardly anyone made a career in science, Edward Alexander Bouchet made history by doing so. In 1876, he became the first African-American and the sixth person of any race to earn a physics Ph.D. in the Western Hemisphere, and went on to have a four-decade science teaching career. Today, Bouchet is probably more prominent than ever. His name graces a growing number of honors, including the annual Edward A. Bouchet Award that APS established in 1994, and the Bouchet Leadership Award Medals given by Yale University, where Bouchet received his Ph.D.

The selection of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University emeritus physics professor Joseph A. Johnson III for one of Yale’s 2016 Bouchet Medals has special resonance with the honor’s namesake. Johnson also earned his Ph.D. from Yale, in 1965, and went on to do pioneering fluid dynamics research in both academia and industry, as well as work to increase the representation of minorities in the sciences. He is an APS fellow and the 1995 recipient of the APS Bouchet Award, which he helped establish. Johnson received his medal at the Annual Yale Bouchet Conference on Diversity and Graduate Education held at Yale in early April, where he proposed a “new Bouchet epoch” combining recent advances in scientific discovery with progress in diversifying science.

The Bouchet revival has been gathering momentum for almost 30 years. It started with the 1988 founding of the Edward A. Bouchet International Center for Theoretical Physics (now the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute) in Trieste, Italy, and has only grown from there, says Ronald Mickens, a physicist at Clark Atlanta University who edited a 2002 volume on Bouchet and received the APS Bouchet award in 2008. “[Bouchet’s] name got out into the public, and so everyone now wants to claim a piece of him.”

That his name would one day adorn awards, honor societies, academic conferences and institutions around the world would probably have surprised Bouchet, given that he did not receive major recognition in his lifetime. Edward Bouchet was born in New Haven, Connecticut, on September 15, 1852. He grew up at a time when American science was in its infancy, practiced by a few members of the educated elite, often outside the university system.

Bouchet was, needless to say, not from that socioeconomic class. His father worked as a janitor at Yale and served as a deacon of New Haven’s oldest black church, and his parents were active in the city’s abolitionist scene. He graduated high school in 1868 and became the first black student to attend the private Hopkins School (essentially a feeder school for Yale), where he graduated at the top of his class. In 1870 he became the second black student to enter Yale.

The climate at Yale was not exactly welcoming — students sang racist songs at graduation, and Bouchet was unable to join any of the university’s secret societies, making him one of only four members of his class not to do so. Nevertheless, he graduated sixth in a class of 124, and was the first African American elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

Alfred Cope, a philanthropist and board member of the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), a private, Quaker-run school in Philadelphia, heard about Bouchet and recruited him to teach there, but encouraged him to stay on at Yale for his doctorate first. Bouchet agreed to do so only after Cope offered to finance him with a $1,500-per-year stipend. Bouchet’s Ph.D. thesis was on measuring refractive indices. His advisor was Arthur Wright, who had earned Yale’s first physics Ph.D. (and the first in the U.S.) in 1861. No known copy of Bouchet’s doctoral thesis remains, Mickens says, but his experiments probably tied into then-growing interest in geometrical optics and mineralogy.

2016 Edward Bouchet Award

This year’s recipient is Pablo Laguna at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His award citation reads "For contributions to numerical relativity and astrophysics; in particular, on the simulation of colliding black holes." He received the award at the APS April Meeting 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Pablo Laguna received his degree in physics from the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitan at Iztapalapa in 1981 and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987. In 1992, he joined the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University. He was promoted to associate professor in 1998 and to professor in 2000. He was named associate director of both the Center for Gravitational Wave Physics and the Institute for Gravitational Physics and Geometry in 2001. In 2008, he became professor in the Schools of Physics and of Computational Science and Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Laguna is founding member and was first director of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Tech until 2013 when he became chair of the School of Physics. His research is in computational astrophysics, investigating astrophysical phenomena involving binary systems with black holes and/or neutron stars. Laguna was named a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2008 and elected to the Mexican Academy of Science in 2007.

Bouchet left almost no written records, so it is unknown whether he wished to pursue an academic career, for which he was clearly qualified. But Mickens suspects he likely didn’t even consider the possibility, since American higher education institutions were not open to hiring black faculty members. Instead, Bouchet began teaching at the ICY in fall of 1875. In addition to physics, he taught chemistry, astronomy, geography, physiology and entomology, earning a modest salary of $1,200 per year (around $25,000 in today’s dollars).

Unfortunately, his benefactor, Cope, died the year Bouchet began at ICY, and the school’s remaining managers were less enthusiastic about Cope’s project to educate black students in math and science. Bouchet fought for years to get the school to buy laboratory equipment. (Bouchet’s few records include some of these requests.) He nevertheless remained at ICY until 1902, when he was fired, along with the rest of the staff, as the school moved out of Philadelphia and transitioned from an academics-focused institution to one oriented toward vocational education — a move strongly backed by prominent African-American leader Booker T. Washington.

Bouchet moved often during the rest of his life, teaching at schools in Saint Louis, Ohio, Virginia, and Texas. He never married and had no children, but he was a member of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and was active in the NAACP. His status among America’s educated elite didn’t shield him from the horrors experienced by black people during his time; at one point he was severely beaten after bumping into a prominent white lawyer in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Bouchet died at 66 of heart failure in New Haven in 1918, the same year Elmer Imes became the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in physics.

The dreams Bouchet might have held of helping inspire African-American achievement in science ultimately ran into powerful headwinds from those who thought black students should focus on vocational rather than academic subjects, and didn’t come to fruition in his lifetime. But during four decades of teaching, Bouchet educated hundreds of students, many of whom went on to professional careers. “Certainly it is impossible to assess the far reaching influence of Dr. Bouchet upon the hundreds of persons whose lives he touched,” wrote Lillian Allen, who attended Lincoln School in Gallipolis, Ohio, when Bouchet was principal there, and who went on to become head of music education at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Despite much progress since 1876, the number of African-Americans earning physics Ph.D.s remains far below their representation in the U.S. population. And some of the disparity’s causes echo factors from Bouchet’s time. Several historically black colleges and universities have shuttered their physics departments recently, and others are under threat of closure, notes Theodore Hodapp, Director of Education and Diversity at APS. Mickens adds that the heavy recruitment of women and minority science undergraduates into dual-degree engineering programs starting in the 1980s drained the pool of potential physics Ph.D. candidates.

Recently founded programs now aim to reverse these trends and retain talented minority students in physics, led by the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, the leading producer of minority Ph.D.s in physics and astronomy. The APS Bridge Program, started in 2009, is positioned to increase the fraction of physics Ph.D.s awarded to underrepresented minority students to equal the fraction of physics bachelor's degrees granted to these groups, with African-American students likely to make the largest gains. And the Society’s new National Mentoring Community is providing mentoring to more than 100 underrepresented minority physics students.

Meanwhile, for minority physicists who have made major contributions to the field, the visibility provided by the APS Bouchet Award is “crucial to being a role model to peers and students,” says Nadya Mason, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and current chair of the APS Committee on Minorities. “It’s one of the biggest things we do to increase the visibility of underrepresented physicists.” But she adds, noting the continued underrepresentation of African-Americans and other groups in physics, “The work that needed to be done in Bouchet’s day still has to be done today.”

Further Reading

Ronald E. Mickens, ed., Edward Bouchet, The First African-American Doctorate (World Scientific Publishing Company, 2002).

“Edward Bouchet Becomes the First African American Ph.D. in Physics,” This Month in Physics History, APS News (June 2007).

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