Edward A. Bouchet paved a path for generations of Black students
As the first African American to earn a Ph.D., Bouchet's legacy continues to resonate.
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Many of us Black physicists know Edward A. Bouchet as the first African American Ph.D. in the field. Historians of 19th century Black education know him as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in any subject. And in fact, when Yale College awarded him this academic distinction in 1876, Bouchet was part of a moment that was not only transformational when viewed through the prism of race: He became one of the first 20 people to earn that degree in the United States. These first Ph.D.s went on to be professors and leaders, the forefront of a wave of change in American intellectual life.
Bouchet may have been part of that generation, but the contours of his trajectory are distinct. As a Black man in a segregated hiring market, he had few job options. As was and is the case for so many Black Americans facing discrimination, Bouchet found his home in a Black institution, where he in turn created opportunities for a new generation of Black students.
Edward Alexander Bouchet was born in September 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut, and into a country where slavery was not only legal, but foundational to the national economy. The North is often popularly remembered as a haven from racism. But, as Kabria Baumgartner describes in her award-winning book In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America, just 20 years before Bouchet’s birth, a school in Canterbury, Connecticut had to close after white community members reacted violently to 20 young Black women attending there. Bouchet himself attended segregated elementary schools.
Though his story starts in New England, Bouchet had southern roots. His father William was born into slavery in South Carolina; in 1824, the family who owned him brought him to New Haven to work for free as a servant for their son while he attended Yale. William eventually gained his freedom and became a prominent member of New Haven’s first Black parish, Temple Street Congregational Church (now Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ), and a maintenance worker at Yale College. He and his free-born wife Susan Cooley Bouchet, who was a washer woman at the college, watched as rich, white sons of power were educated in how to wield that power. There, they saw possibilities for their son. Bouchet attended an academy that was a feeder for Yale College, graduating valedictorian.
He graduated summa cum laude from Yale College in 1874 and stayed on for his Ph.D. He completed his doctorate in two years, writing a thesis on measuring how light bends when it passes through various glasses. One could easily imagine the story continuing, “He then went on to become Yale College’s first Black professor of physics.” And surely, in some version of the universe where majority-white institutions were not so deeply entrenched in a legacy of profiting from slavery and upholding white supremacy, that is exactly what happened.
In this universe, however, rather than compromise institutional excellence in the face of exclusion, Bouchet took his brilliance to a home Black people created for one another—one where Black excellence was a welcomed, expected, and celebrated norm. The Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania—a storied school whose alumni include an ambassador, civil right leaders, the first Black woman to head a science college, and the second Black woman physician—hired Bouchet to teach across the sciences: physics, astronomy, chemistry, geography, and physiology.
For more than 25 years, he cultivated a curiosity about the universe in a generation of Black intellectuals and professionals, and helped sustain an important site of Black education. Students of ICY during Bouchet’s tenure included Julian F. Abele, architect of Duke University Chapel as well as a contributing designer to Harvard’s Widener Library and Philadelphia’s Central Library and Museum of Art; and James B. Dudley, the second president of North Carolina A&T State University. Bouchet himself also exemplified an early model of a community-engaged Black scientist, giving public lectures for Black audiences while broadly advocating for science education.
In the last several decades, Bouchet has been transformed into a symbol of Black excellence, ambition, and dreams deferred. This began in 1988, when Nobel Prize in Physics winner Abdus Salam and Black American physicist Joseph Andrew Johnson III founded the Edward Bouchet-ICTP Institute in recognition of the first known person of African descent to earn a Ph.D. in the field. (The Institute was renamed the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute [EBASI] in 1998 to honor Salam, who died in 1996.) EBASI supports professional development for African students in physics while strengthening collaboration between African and American scientists through international conferences and workshops. There is the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, created in 2005 at Yale University—an institution that continues to struggle with not only its historical involvement in slavery, but also modern-day racial discrimination and disparity.
There is also the American Physical Society’s Edward A. Bouchet Award—which I received in 2021—that honors a minority physicist who simultaneously excels in scientific research and advancing the place of marginalized people in the field. The dual success that the Award recognizes is emblematic of the life Bouchet himself led: a whole, curious-about-the-universe human being whose lifetime was marked by swathes of society refusing to acknowledge his humanity.
Bouchet was unfairly denied the opportunity to make lasting, direct contributions as a researcher, but his imprint is present in other ways. Many of us walk in his footsteps. Because of the professional path he carved—and the Black institutions that supported intellectuals like him—a growing number of us have more of a chance now. Even as some level of integration has occurred and we are at times able to obtain the resources to excel, we continue to struggle against white supremacy. Bouchet’s love for science and for our community reminds us to keep going.