Black women in chemistry who changed the world

In honour of Black History Month, we’re shouting out some phenomenal Black women in chemistry who changed the world.

13 October 2020

Every October in the UK, we mark Black History Month. It's a time for recognising and celebrating the stories of the amazing Black people who shaped our world. Last week, we showcased 10 Black British women who shaped our country. Today, we want to focus on STEM, specifically one of our favourite subjects - chemistry! 

If we asked you to name a famous woman in chemistry, you’d probably say ‘Marie Curie!’ And with good reason – she discovered two elements and was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. However, while we should absolutely acknowledge her as a pioneering woman in science, it’s also important to shine a spotlight on the contributions of others, who aren’t as well known in the history books. So, we’re shouting out some phenomenal Black women in chemistry who changed lives, but whose contribution often goes unrecognised. 

Marie Maynard Daly, 1921 - 2003

Marie was a biochemist and the first Black woman to get a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. She led several studies that helped us understand the causes of heart attacks, and developed education programs to increase the number of ethnic minority students in medical sciences.

Alice Ball, 1892 - 1916

Alice was the first woman to earn a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii, and later also became their first female instructor in their chemistry department. Her work led to the first treatment for Hansen’s disease, otherwise known as leprosy.

However, her contribution was very nearly lost to history – she died before she could publish her findings, and another chemist continued her research and published it as his own. Thankfully, her contribution is now recognized – the University of Hawaii created a plaque to honour her legacy, and set up a scholarship in her name so that her contribution would never be forgotten again. 

Alma Levant Hayden, 1927 - 1967

Alma was the first Black woman to gain a science position at a science agency in Washington D.C. She specialised in spectrophotometry, the measurement of how substances absorb light, and used it to analyse lots of chemicals. She proved that a controversial and popular new cancer drug actually didn’t work, and later testified in the famous trial against the doctors who had claimed it was a cure.

Mary Elliott Hill, 1907 - 1969

Mary specialised in analysing ultra-violet light. Her work, collaborating with her husband, Carl Hill, led to the development of new methods that were a big part in supporting the development of plastics. She eventually became the Head of the chemistry department at Tennessee State University and won lots of awards for her teaching. Many of her students became chemistry professors.

Patricia Bath, 1942 - 2019

Patricia specialized in ophthalmology, or eye disorders. As a young intern in Harlem Hospital, she noticed that half of the patients were blind or visually impaired, whereas in Columbia University, there were very few blind patients. She realized that patients at Harlem lacked access to eye care and started a new discipline offering primary care to under-served populations, particularly Black populations. Her work has saved the sight of thousands of people, and her approach continues to be practiced today. She also invented the Laserphaco Probe, which improved how lasers remove cataracts. As a result, she became the first Black woman in the United States to receive a patent for medical innovation.

We hoped you enjoyed learning about these amazing Black women in chemistry! These pioneers prove that Chemistry is for everyone, and that it can change the world. If you want to inspire your unit to discover how cool Chemistry is, check out our Clever Chemicals how-to videos for Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rangers, developed in partnership with the Royal Society of Chemistry.