by Tamina Kienka
In the fall of 1852, Edward Bouchet was born to a freed slave living in New Haven, Connecticut. His father worked as a laborer and his mother as a housewife. They were both active in their local abolitionist movement and encouraged Edward Bouchet and his three older sisters to gain an education. Given the still segregated public school system, Bouchet attended the Artisan Street Colored School, which had one teacher and 30 students at all grade levels.
In 1868, he was admitted to Hopkins Grammar School, a prestigious private preparatory school. At Hopkins, Bouchet studied Latin and Greek as well as geometry and algebra, graduating first in his class in 1870. Later that year, he began college at Yale University where he excelled once again. In June 1874, he graduated sixth in a class of 124 students and was nominated to Phi Beta Kappa. Bouchet then chose to continue his graduate education at Yale. Two years after completing his undergraduate studies, Bouchet became the first Black person to earn a PhD from an American University and the sixth American of any race to earn a Ph.D. in physics.
Bouchet’s original research focused on geometrical optics, which describes how light moves under various circumstances. Importantly, light rays may be absorbed, reflected, or bent as they travel from one material to the next. Ultimately, Bouchet wrote a dissertation “On Measuring Refractive Indices”, which helps us understand how fast light travels through different materials, such as liquid and air.
Despite his impressive academic achievements, not many career options – particularly university positions – were available to him as an African American. In the fall of 1876, Bouchet moved to Philadelphia to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), the city’s only high school for Black students. There, he headed the school’s new science program. He educated and inspired others as a science instructor, teaching classes in physics, chemistry, astronomy, physical geography, and physiology. He also gave lectures on various scientific topics for students and staff. He even reached out to the wider community by giving public lectures on science.
Bouchet taught at the ICY for 26 years. However, in the 1900s, many Black young people were being pushed into vocational and technical training, rather than academic education. Although Bouchet’s accomplishments clearly showed that Black people were more than capable of academic and scientific pursuits, in 1902 the ICY decided that the school would give up academic subjects and shift its focus to industrial education. Bouchet lost his job and spent the next several years in different teaching positions around the country.
In 1916, Bouchet returned home to New Haven in poor health, and died in 1918 at age 66. He was survived by his mother, who died two years later at age 102. In commemoration of Edward Bouchet, Yale has convened seminars and lecture series in his name, bestowed the Bouchet Leadership Awards in Minority Graduate Education, and hung an oil painting of him — a young man in formal attire, looking off with an expression of dignified purpose — in a prominent spot at the main library.
Over the course of his life, Bouchet educated many Black youths in science, but Black people were still excluded from most scientific education and careers for many years. It was not until 1918, the year Bouchet died, and 42 years after he received his PhD, that Elmer Imes became the second African American to receive a PhD in physics.
Tamina Kienka is a third year student in the MD-PhD program at Harvard University.
Photograph of Edward Bouchet is US public domain.
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