Racial and economic barriers kept Carolyn Beatrice Parker from realizing her full potential
The Dayton Project physicist could have had a long and storied career in her field.
The annals of science journalism weren’t always as inclusive as they could have been. So PopSci is working to correct the record with In Hindsight, a series profiling some of the figures whose contributions we missed. Read their stories and explore the rest of our 150th anniversary coverage here.
All too often, even in 2022, Black students are interpreted through a deficit model: Academic institutions assume that we’re underprepared and that our families are unfamiliar with such work. Read Carolyn Beatrice Parker’s CV in the context of her family’s achievements, however, and it’s immediately apparent that she represents an example of what’s possible when intellectual success is expected and the resources to achieve it are provided.
Parker, the first known Black woman to earn a master’s degree in physics, came from a family of strivers who could arguably be held up as the archetype of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Talented Tenth.” Her father was a Fisk University-educated physician, and her mother was a schoolteacher. A maternal uncle was a dentist, and another cousin earned a degree in mathematics from Fisk. Parker—born in November 1917 in Gainesville, Florida—and her siblings all went to college, and every one of them earned an advanced degree.
In some ways, Parker’s trajectory through her field reflects the stories of many white men who are better known: She was a technical mind drawn into the US’s nuclear efforts during World War II, then went on to earn a postgraduate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—a landing pad for many ex–Manhattan Project scientists.
Yet, in that company, Parker is distinct. She got as far as she did because of the educational opportunities created by Black institutions; entering a better resourced university did not transform her career the way it did for her white, male contemporaries. She earned a second masters, but never a Ph.D. Her name doesn’t appear in major recountings of mid-twentieth century physics and only recently has any kind of comprehensive biography been written about her. Her family has lovingly maintained an oral history that has only recently been taken up in the newsletter of the American Physical Society’s Forum on the History and Philosophy of Physics. The entry’s authors, physicist Ronald E. Mickens and history professor Charmayne E. Patterson, note that they penned the essay hoping that someone “will find an urge to write a proper, full-length biography of this fascinating woman.”
As a Black woman, scientific institutions were not set up to protect and nurture her. Dedicated teachers and her highly educated family provided Parker with a solid primary education in spite of the underfunded, segregated primary schools she was forced to attend in Florida. Parker’s higher education and career, however, were slowed at times because she spent so much time working as a public school teacher or physics and math instructor to pay for her schooling, and she made choices that did not necessarily align with her intellectual interests purely for financial reasons. Parker’s studies were delayed when she spent an academic year teaching public school to fund her bachelor’s degree at Fisk University. There she was advised by Elmer Imes—the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics and the founding chair of the school’s physics department—to pursue graduate studies at his own alma mater, the University of Michigan. However, her desired physics program required a thesis, and, as Parker was funding her studies by working additional years as a teacher in Florida and Virginia, she pursued an MA in mathematics instead.
After she graduated, Parker worked as an instructor at Bluefield State College in West Virginia, before she was recruited in 1942 to work on the Dayton Project, which produced polonium as part of the larger effort to develop atomic weapons. Intensive physics laboratory courses at Fisk had trained Parker in advanced techniques including electronic testing and infrared spectroscopy, and her first masters provided her knowledge in advanced applied mathematics. Safety protocols (as far as they existed) in the Dayton Project, though, seem to have been particularly lacking in regard to protecting Black women: In their essay, Mickens and Patterson reference comments made by a Dayton project scientist about a female employee with “unruly hair, some of which became contaminated.” This employee, who the pair believes was Parker, had weekly urine checks with the highest radiation counts of anyone in her research group. Head coverings at Dayton had likely been designed with the short, finer hairs of white men in mind—even though many women also worked at the facility.
After Dayton, Parker was recruited as faculty at Fisk, where Imes’s replacement, James R. Lawson, was setting up an infrared spectroscopy research program. After a number of years there, Parker realized she needed a doctoral degree to advance both her teaching and research, and used her Dayton Project contacts to gain admission to a physics Ph.D. program at MIT. She got in, but, even though MIT was flush with funds from the Department of Defense, she received no financial aid—especially disturbing for a Manhattan Project alum. Ultimately, she switched from a doctoral to a MS program.
After she enrolled in 1951, Mickens and Patterson believe her studies were delayed once more by the need to work part time at the nearby Geophysics Research Division at the Air Force Cambridge Research Center, where she continued for a decade after leaving MIT. By the time she officially finished her MS in 1955, she’d begun to experience what were likely symptoms of leukemia.
Despite the misogynoir she faced, Parker made an independent contribution to research in nuclear and particle physics with her MIT thesis, titled “Range distribution of 122 MEV (pi⁺) and (pi⁻) mesons in brass”. As a sometimes-teacher of stellar astrophysics, I can say that these kinds of measurements of nuclear interactions are key to understanding physical phenomena not just here on Earth, but also far away in the cosmos. It is somewhat chilling to imagine what insights her incredible mind might have provided, had Parker’s education not been slowed at nearly every turn. Arguably, she could have earned a Ph.D. in physics as early as 1942, around the time she began at the Dayton Project.
This year, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the first African-American woman who did earn a Ph.D. in physics. When she defended her dissertation at the University of Michigan in 1972, Willie Hobbs Moore broke a barrier in professional science. In the intervening years, around 100 more Black American women, myself included, have reached that level in physics and related fields. Often, we are touted as firsts: the first at our institution, the first in our area of specialty. And we absolutely are first in those spaces. But it is important to recognize that all of us, Parker and Hobbs Moore included, are part of a long tradition of Black scientists, which stretches back and through Africa before European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Each of our achievements is rooted in those who come before us—names we often do not know.