by Tamina Kienka

Edward Bouchet, Yale College class of 1874

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.

Cover image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

This biography is part of our “Picture a Scientist” initiative. To learn more about the amazing men and women who paved the way for modern scientific discovery, check out our homepage.

One thought on “Edward Bouchet: Trailblazer, teacher, and public servant

  1. As a Conservative Republican and a refugee from totalitarianism who first lived in Harlem upon my arrival in the US, I was much exposed to EXPLOITATION of the race issue in US Higher Education. This has caused me to conclude that you can take the person out of the ghetto but it’s much harder to take the ghetto out of the person. Consequently, it seems, we are dealing with severe damage done to involuntary Americans that has eroded many prospects for catch-up for people who had de facto animal status imposed on them by the US Government because of the color of their skin. Hence, any remediation attempt, when it fails, would not distinguish as to whether it was based on compensation for a severe lasting historic disability through many lineages or only through denial of opportunities to people who only need restitution of long overdue means to live full and satisfactory lives. For that reason, as victims of race based capture, kidnap and enslavement by public and private institutions, justice can only come to them in the form of compensatory damages in cash that are ever greater in total sum if the victim agrees to receive them in a way that does not devastate the National Treasury. And, upon achieving educational and social service prominence in numerous professions, these compensatory damages to black slaves should be even greater, extended to descendants in case of a recipient’s demise because of how much steeper was their road up than for other Americans. In other words, as remuneration for the evil way in which America forcibly brought Africans in bondage into the US, only financial remuneration to descendants has any value, as was the case with Holocaust Survivors from a German state remuneration fund. Whatever that sum is, for a given time, the descendants of African slaves forcibly brought to America should be given reparations over an extended time, with attractive supplementation for educational, social and governmental benefits they individually might achieve, as such achievements were against a far steeper grade than other US citizens. All the rest of us who suffered abuse as “aliens” came here of our own accord. Only African-Americans came here as kidnapped and enslaved chattel with no civil or Constitutional rights and protections due them. Given our generational refusal to recognize this historical reality, their American descendants are entitled to all remunerations due a victim of American injustice. What they do with it is totally each individual’s freedom of choice. Like any other damage compensation it should be tax free. Until we monetarily compensate the African lineages brought to America in bondage, JUSTICE cannot ever be served. Any supra-numeral consideration for admission to colleges etc. is meaningless as the socially hereditary damages from bondage cannot be thus deemed compensated. Qualification for all opportunities provided US citizens should henceforth be equal for all with quotas for none. African Americans alone are due reparations for then legal and unjust capture, kidnapping and enslavement in the USA. But also, those who made something of themselves of noteworthy social value should be entitled to extra remuneration for their achievements against unique social odds. And, those who choose to do the same, should be dully rewarded on accomplishing such status. Free higher education for those that acquire admission through regular standard selection do so against the weight of far greater unfair historical odds than any other Americans. For this accomplishment they are do also remuneration bonuses. But justice is never served by putting someone into opportunities for which he/she is not prepared and then ending all justice for our national historic crime on the basis that “he/she got his/her chance!” So, Congress must legislate a base remunerative amount as “reparations” for sins of our state to his/her lineage as a US citizen with supplemental cash rewards for social achievements explicitly provided. This case of separate and unequal is the only way to an America united and equal under the law. We must make the lineage of captured, kidnapped and forced into slavery a national wrong by financially compensating the survivors of such lineages with financial reparations, just as Germany is paying reparations for its injustices against Jews. However, educational and career opportunities should continue to be provided on the basis of qualification and not remunerative bias. Until we do that, we will never be a just and united nation treating all its citizens equally.

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