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Stories of African-American STEM Societies: Part 1 — The First Wave (1895 to 1947)

 

 

When we celebrate STEM history, we tend to focus on individuals singled out for specific inspiring scientific achievements. And that’s great. But this month I wanted to focus on collective effort, and the invaluable work people do to support and advance each other. So I looked for today’s national African-American professional organizations in STEM fields, and dug into their stories. They are a truly awesome vanguard, and far too many for a single post: this is the first of 4. (Please let me know if you know of more!)

 

1. Medicine

 

Let’s start with the oldest – the National Medical Association (NMA), founded in 1895:

Conceived in no spirit of racial exclusiveness, fostering no ethnic antagonisms, but born out of the exigency of the American environment…

 

Photo of church
The First Congregational Church, Atlanta: Site of the meeting that founded the NMA (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

African-Americans were faced with a dual medical care system, and non-white doctors were excluded from professional societies, from white hospitals and universities. For example, NMA points out:

It is reported that as late as 1912, only 19 of New York City’s 29 hospitals would admit black patients, and only three gave black physicians the right to tend to their patients or perform operations.

Karen Morris, in a wonderful thesis on the founding of the NMA, describes the struggle for fairness for African-Americans practicing in a “professional vacuum devoid of opportunities to interact with and learn from other physicians”:

In 1869, a mere four years after the end of the civil war and during a time when Southern sentiment ran high in Washington, D.C., three African-American physicians applied for membership into the all-white Medical Society of the District of Columbia (MSDC). Though meeting all eligibility requirements, they were denied admission into this society based solely on their race. Amidst much publicity in the local newspapers, the three physicians and their supporters sought remedy of the exclusionary practices of the MSDC on the floor of Congress and at the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Annual Meeting. However, those opposed to integrating the society proved formidable. Despite pitched battles in both the Congress and the AMA, African American physicians did not succeed in their quest for acceptance into the all-white medical societies.

Morris reports the 3 physicians, Charles B. Purvis, Alexander T. Augusta, and Alpheus W. Tucker and their supporters formed a National Medical Society (NMS), which did not survive longterm. Morris reports other calls for a society for African-American doctors, for example:

In 1892 a call went out in an editorial printed in the Medical and Surgical Observer, the first ‘Negro” medical journal, for a national voice for the “colored” physicians.

Another, she reported, would be the one to kick off both the first African-American journal and the NMA:

Barred from white hospitals and medical societies and with many physicians practicing in remote locations, the Negro physicians often practiced in a professional vacuum devoid of any opportunities for continuing education. Miles V. Lynk, a Meharry graduate, saw first-hand, the problems caused by this isolation. Shortly after starting his medical practice, he began publishing the Medical and Surgical Observer. With this medical journal, he set out to provide the Negro physician with a sense of solidarity and a means to keep abreast of current medical knowledge and practices. In an editorial in his journal, Dr. Lynk lamented that it was time for the Negro physicians to organize their own national medical society. Although the Negro physicians had already begun to organize state medical societies, he felt they needed a national forum. As Dr. Lynk exclaimed in another editorial, united they would “demand the respect they so highly deserve.” In an effort to bring about the formation of this national society, Dr. Lynk began meeting with his former Meharry Medical College instructor, Dr. Robert F. Boyd, to discuss the plan.

Robert F. Boyd had been born into slavery and separated from his mother until after the Civil War. He became a prominent Tennessee physician and president of a bank, as well as being the professor of gynecology and clinical medicine at Meharry College.

 

Portrait of Robert Fulton Boyd
Robert F. Boyd, from his 1902 paper “”What are the causes of the great mortality among the Negroes in the cities of the South, and how is that mortality to be lessened?” (via Project Gutenberg)

 

In 1895, at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Boyd reminded Lynk of his call for a national organization:

Since there were several Black physicians from different states at the Exposition, they agreed that this would be the opportune time to organize this association. It had become a practice, during the Exposition, for the Negro participants to hold side meetings at the First Congregational Church in Atlanta. This, therefore, seemed like the ideal place to hold the meeting. After obtaining permission to hold the meeting at the church, Drs. Lynk and Boyd notified all the Black physicians in attendance at the Exposition of the time and purpose of the meeting. Twelve physicians attended this first meeting. After Dr. Boyd declined to officiate over the meeting, Dr. Lynk approached Professor I. Garland Penn, the Commissioner of the Negro Division of the Exposition, and asked him to preside over the meeting. Some accounts of this meeting have erroneously reported that Professor Penn organized the meeting. In his book, Dr. Lynk takes pains to correct this misinterpretation of fact. He writes, “I want to emphasize the true fact that no layman organized the N.M.A. in the sense that he conceived the idea or suggested the organization, or that he, of his own initiative, called the meeting to order. So much for that.”

It was called the National Association of Colored Physicians, Dentists, and Pharmacists, and Boyd was elected its first president. The first woman elected NMA president was Edith Irby-Jones, from Arkansas, who became chief of cardiology at a hospital in Houston and professor at Baylor College.

 

Photo of Edith Irby-Jones
Edith Irby-Jones in the 1950s (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The NMA started off with annual scientific meetings, only becoming regular from 1903 when it changed its name to NMA. By the mid 1900s, about 100 doctors attended the annual meeting, and proceedings were published from 1905. Kenney again:

“He who planteth an oak tree looks forward to future ages and plants for posterity; nothing can be less selfish than this.”

They began publishing the Journal of the National Medical Association in 1909, first with the major papers from meetings. After 110 years, there are more than 11,300 entries for the journal in PubMed.

 

Banner of the first issue of the Journal of the National Medical Association

 

From 1909, NMA began to advocate around healthcare rights and needs for African Americans, investigating health issues predominantly affecting African Americans, and working to reduce racial discrimination against African-American doctors.

In 2008 at the national NMA meet, reports Priscilla Grace Harrell, “the AMA issued an official apology for its previous policies of exclusion toward African-American physicians”.

Today, the NMA provides continuing professional education and scientific and scholarly exchange, advocates on public health and health policy, and provides scholarships as part of its effort to increase the number of doctors from under-represented communities.

The NMA’s website is here, and it is on Twitter.

 

2. Dentists

 

The first of 2 breakaways from the NMA happened in 1913 — dentists:

[Black dentists] spent several decades ensconced within the NMA along with the Black pharmacists. Although two dentists served as president of the NMA, dentists felt overshadowed and ignored.

The founder of the new association, David A. Ferguson, was one of those NMA presidents (photo here). Ferguson had formed another national group in 1901, but it only lasted a few years. There was a rich tradition of local African-American dental organizations, and his next effort was building regionally first.

 

 

He was the first president of that new independent organization. It  was called the Tri-State Dental Society, then the Inter-State Dental Association, and then the National Dental Association (NDA) in 1933. They severed ties with the NMA in 1940, and began publishing a journal in 1941.

Together with its auxiliary organizations, the NDA now has a membership of about 7,000:

For over 100 years, the NDA has been a national forum for minority dentists and a leader in advancing their rights within the dental profession, the armed services, the government, and the private sector. Through scholarships and support programs, the NDA promotes dentistry as a viable profession.

Hazel J.Harper was the first woman president of the NDA, in 1997.

The NDA’s website is here, and they are on Twitter. (There’s a book on the history of the NDA, too.)

 

3. National Technical Association

 

Thirty years after the NMA had started, the National Technical Association (NTA) got off the ground in Chicago in 1925, incorporating in 1926. The NTA grew out of local technical societies that had emerged since 1920, encouraging African-American opportunities in technical and engineering fields, and promoting interest in science.

Their founder and first president was Charles Sumner Duke, who was an architect and activist, and the first African-American to gain a degree in mathematics from Harvard. The NTA website lists past presidents from 1956: their first woman president appears to be Valerie Thomas, in 1984.

From their website:

The NTA was created to encourage and inspire women, minorities and youth to enter and excel in the fields of math, science and technology. It encouraged professional development through conferences, scientific journals and/or competitions…

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, NTA was the go-to organization to obtain information about the status of the African American technical community and to obtain advice on technical matters affecting African Americans.  The NTA leadership and members were national and international experts in their disciplines and civil rights activists that encouraged the development of Black technical talent.  The Nation’s needs for technical talent grew and expanded into new disciplines during WWII.  This environment led to the development of big science and unparalleled technical development.  NTA’s members worked to help educate more and more minorities to qualify to take advantage of these opportunities.

Charles Richard Drew reported in 1950 :

Its last directory published in 1949, shows that the Association has grown from a mere handful of far-seeing men to an organization which now contains over fourteen chapters with a combined membership of over four hundred well organized aggressive members.

Since the 1950s, they report that their members have had a close association with NASA. One of their most famous members is NASA’s Katherine Johnson, from Hidden Figures.

 

Photo of crystal award
NTA Government Excellence Award presented to Donald Campbell of NASA (NASA photo via Internet Archive)

 

4. National Institute of Science

 

In 1943, the National Institute of Science (NIS) was founded:

The NIS was formed to combat several problems, all caused to some extent by the reality of racial segregation in the early twentieth century. Owing to segregation and other discriminatory practices, black scientists were often unable to attend the meetings of major professional science organizations, particularly when those gatherings were held in the South, except in Texas. Whenever black scientists participated in professional conferences, as was the case to a limited extent in the activities of the Virginia Academy of Sciences, their white colleagues virtually ignored them.

The NIS was the result of many years of preparation, begun by Hubert Branch Crouch, a zoologist. (There’s a building named after him at Tennessee State University.) William King wrote about him and the origin of the NIS:

[He] first envisioned forming a national organization of black scientists while attending the third annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching in the spring of 1931 in New York City shortly after he had begun teaching at Kentucky State College…

On looking around the room he noticed the paucity of black faces (his, his wife Mildred’s, and possibly that of W.E.E. Blanchet of Fort Valley State) and began to wonder how he might best communicate the information he had acquired to his colleagues in the few and geographically separated historically black schools and colleges that were starved of resources of all kinds.

 

Photo of college
Kentucky State University at Frankfort in 1898, then the State Normal School for the Colored (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Crouch worked away at the idea for years, networking extensively. In 1935, he was a graduate student. Mildred Crouch recalled him starting to talk about his idea for an organization with another graduate student during a lull in a football game”. In 1939, he put forward his plan to organize black scientists at the 1939 meeting of the Virginia Conference of College Science Teachers, but it wasn’t taken up. He wrote letters to the colleges asking about local organizations, and visited colleges during biological field trips. By the time he was ready to try again, he had visited 32.

Crouch and 9 of his colleagues from 8 historically black colleges presented a proposal to the 1943 Conference of the Presidents of Negro Land-Grant Colleges. The organization they successfully proposed was called The Association of Science Teachers in Negro Colleges and Affiliated Institutions – the name was changed to NIS soon afterwards. One of the things Crouch advocated was re-organizing science teaching at the colleges to allow time for doing research.

As the most senior scientist involved, Thomas Wyatt Turner was elected the first president. He was a civil rights activist, professor, and the first African-American to gain a PhD in botany. His memoir is called From Sharecropper to Scientist.

 

Honoring our Sigma Brothers during Black History Month! Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner was a Professor of Botany at Howard…

Posted by Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc on Monday, February 15, 2016

 

I don’t know who the first woman president of NIS was.

The organization continues to promote science at historically black institutions and in the community, with “year-round academic activities, mentoring and networking events for our members” (about NIS).

 

5. Pharmacists

 

This first wave of African-American STEM professional societies ends in 1947 with the second breakaway from the NMA: the National Pharmaceutical Association (NPhA). It was founded by Chauncey Ira Cooper from Howard University, and its genesis was described in an article in 2006 by Dennis Worthen (with wonderful photos):

[D]entists and pharmacists formed sections within the group [NMA], but by 1939 few pharmacists held membership. In 1939 Cooper wrote of the decreasing numbers of African American drugstores and pharmacists and the need for African American physicians to help both in recruitment and patronage, adding that “the drugstore is recognized as one of the first lines of defense in public health, yet the line is growing weaker and weaker among us.” In 1946 pharmacist members of NMA started to explore the establishment of a separate organization, and 45 pharmacists met on May 30, 1947, at Howard University College of Pharmacy and elected Chauncey Cooper as their president. The plan was for the pharmacists to maintain their relationship with NMA on an equal footing with the physicians. The proposed relationship was not forthcoming and in 1948 Chauncey Cooper became the president of the newly independent National Pharmaceutical Association (NPhA). The objectives of the association included providing an atmosphere in which minority pharmacists could exchange ideas, share continuing education, and build community relationships. In a later, unpublished statement, Cooper recalled that NPhA was established “as an educational vehicle to bring the Negroes into the mainstream of American pharmacy, with the idea from the beginning that it would not become a permanent organization once Negroes gained total acceptance in organized pharmacy.”

 

 

The NPhA website is here, and they are on Twitter.

 

The next wave of African-American STEM societies came with the civil rights, Black Power, and student activism of 1968… More on that in tomorrow’s post!

 

This is the first of a 4-part series for Black History Month 2019.

Part 2 – From Psychologists to Mathematicians

Part 3 – From Sociologists to Engineers

Part 4 — From Anthropologists to Academic Surgeons

 

 

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[Update] I deleted this sentence about the NTA: “According to a 1930 news item in The Crisis, it was founded at Wilberforce University”. I’m grateful to Michael A. Chapman from the NTA for pointing out this report was wrong, and they were founded in Chicago. I found a source describing that, and added a link. In addition, he pointed out their first president was Charles Sumner Duke. I added this information (using this source), and deleted the following: “One of their founders was architect John A. Lankford, who was the first African-American architect to have his own architectural office, and founded the architecture department at Howard University. He was the NTA’s first president. [PDF]”

The photo of the First Congregational Church in Atlanta in around 1902 is from Wikimedia Commons). The Church was built in the late 1860s, and replaced with its current building in 1908.

The portrait of Robert Fulton Boyd comes from his paper, published in a 1902 collection, digitized online by Project Gutenberg. (I also uploaded the photo to Wikimedia Commons.)

The photo of Edith Irby-Jones in the 1950s comes from Wikimedia Commons.

The snapshot of the banner of the first issue of The Journal of the National Medical Association comes from page 1 in PubMed Central.

The photo of the National Technical Association award to Donald Campbell is from NASA’s Glenn Research Center, which was led by Donald Campbell: US government photo in the public domain, via Internet Archive.

The photo of the Kentucky State University of Frankfort in 1898 comes from Wikimedia Commons.

I cropped and saved in black and white the Wikimedia Commons photo of John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the ceremony to receive their medals at the 1968 Olympics.

 

 

 

 

Discussion
  1. There are several inaccuracies with respect to The National Technical Association Inc.(NTA). The organization was founded in 1925 at the Wabash Avenue YMCA in Chicago, IL. It later incorporated in the state of Illinois in 1926. It is the nation’s first and oldest technical profession association of minority scientists, engineers, and technology professionals. NTA’s first president was Charles Sumner Duke, the first African-American to earn a mathematics degree from Harvard University. He also earned a degree in civil engineering there. Charles S Duke worked as a builder, project engineer, and architect. He designed the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River in Chicago, IL He was a.founder of the NTA and its first president for many years. Although NTA is no longer the only technical professional association for minority scientists and engineers, it still holds annual conferences for STEM professionals and students each year at various locations where they have chapters. Many of the nation’s leading technical professionals of color have been NTA members.

  2. Thank you so much for pointing out those errors. I have deleted the incorrect points and the sources from which they came, and found and added sources with the correct information. (It would be wonderful if this information were included on the NTA’s website: although John Lankford is mentioned in the history there, Charles Sumner Duke is not.) Thank you again!

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