Jane Datcher: First African-American woman to get an advanced degree at Cornell handwrote her thesis

Mildred Europa Taylor July 09, 2020
Jane Eleanor Datcher. Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

This week, Black botanists across the world have been sharing their love of plants through stories, photos or poems under the #BlackBotanistsWeek initiative. Launched Monday on Twitter and Instagram on the heels of the #BlackBirdersWeek campaign, the event is designed to “promote, encourage, create a safe space for, and find more Black people (and BIPOC) who love plants,” organizers said.

Bucknell University post-doctoral researcher Tanisha Williams, a member of the organizing team, launched #BlackBotanistsWeek by first paying tribute to Lynika Strozier, a 35-year-old researcher and scientist who died June 7 from COVID-19.

Since then, participants have been sharing stories linked to the theme of the campaign, and Jane Eleanor Datcher’s story is one such narrative that has warmed hearts.

The daughter of freeborn blacks who resided in Washington, Datcher is the first known black woman to matriculate at Cornell University at a time the university was not too welcoming to women of all races. Braving all odds, she became the first African-American woman to obtain an advanced degree at the university. 

Datcher received her B.S. degree in 1890 from the Cornell Botany Department in part because of a precisely hand-written thesis entitled A biological sketch of Hepatica triloba Chaix and Hepatica acutiloba DC, according to Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Hepatica is a genus of a Spring flowering plant found in the Six Mile Creek area of Ithaca, NY as well as other locations,” says the university.

Not much has been documented on Datcher’s life. What is known is that she studied in private schools operated by Washington’s Black community before attending Cornell University.

A year after receiving her advanced degree, she was mentioned in an 1891 article about “Sage Maidens of Cornell University” published in Demorest’s Family Magazine.

Here’s how the magazine quoted a figure description [see figure below]: “Pictured in ‘Sage Maidens of Cornell,’ Jane Datcher (second row, second from the left), her cousin Charles Chauveau Cook, and George Washington Fields (all class of 1890) were the first African-American students to graduate from Cornell…”

sage maidens

Datcher, after her studies at Cornell, attended Howard Medical School from 1893 to 1894. Records show that “she taught chemistry from 1892 until 1934 at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. until a short time before her death.” Her memorial service was well attended by students and faculty who admired her work when she was alive.

More than 20 of Datcher’s relatives would later attend Cornell, including her niece, Adelaide Helen Cook Daly, who was the daughter of her cousin Charles Chauveau Cook.

Cook, who graduated alongside Datcher in 1890, became a professor and head of the English Department at Howard University where he became a well-known teacher from 1892 until his death in 1910 at the age of 36.

Datcher may not have received a pleasant welcome when she enrolled at Cornell. However, her tenacity and hard work amid stories of racism that were still part of American culture did pave the way for others at the university, especially African-American women who, to date, do learn alongside their white counterparts and have moved on to achieve greatness.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 9, 2020


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