St. Elmo Brady, the pioneering chemist who made a difference at Tuskegee, other HBCUs

Michael Eli Dokosi August 01, 2020
St. Elmo Brady in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Courtesy of Carol Brady Fonvielle

St. Elmo Brady was the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States but beyond that, he built chemistry curricula, faculty, programs and facilities at four major historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where he mentored multiple generations of African-American chemists, according to an account.

Brady left a mark at Tuskegee Institute, Howard University, Fisk University, and Tougaloo College where he taught.

He received a Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Illinois in 1916 for work done in Noyes Laboratory.

Born on December 22, 1884, in Louisville, Kentucky, Brady graduated from Louisville Colored High School in 1903 and left home when he was 20 to attend Fisk in Nashville, Tennessee where he studied chemistry on the advice of his chemistry teacher, Thomas W. Talley.

Upon graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1908, Brady taught at the Tuskegee University in Alabama and after four years received a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He completed his M.S. in chemistry in 1914 and continued his graduate studies under Professor Clarence G. Derick.

Brady published three scholarly abstracts with Derick in Science between 1914 and 1915. In his Ph.D. research, Brady, according to a report, “investigated the acidity of straight-chain carboxylic acids in which a pair of hydrogen atoms was replaced with an oxygen atom to give a keto acid.”

His research resulted in a number of firsts, including “new methods for preparing and purifying certain compounds and clarifying the influence of carbonyl groups on the acidity of carboxylic acids, an early contribution to the nascent field of physical organic chemistry,” the report added.

Brady became the first African American to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States when he successfully completed his Ph.D. and offered oral defense of his 228-page dissertation, titled “The Scale of Influence of Substituents in Paraffine Monobasic Acids. The Divalent Oxygen Atom,” on May 22, 1916. He was meanwhile the 40th person to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois.

While at the University of Illinois, Brady became the first African American admitted to Phi Lambda Upsilon, the chemistry honor society in 1914. The following year, he became one of the first African Americans to be inducted into Sigma Xi, the science honor society.

In November 1916, Brady was named “Man of the Month” by The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP.

While he could have entered the corporate world and become wealthy, Brady opted to return to Tuskegee where he served as head of the Division of Science and developed the undergraduate program in chemistry. In 1917, he published a 66-page monograph on Household Chemistry for Girls.

In 1920 he accepted an offer to chair the chemistry department at Howard University. After seven years at Howard, he received the call to return to Fisk in 1927. Brady became chair of Fisk’s chemistry department, where he made what is believed to be his greatest impact as a chemist.

“Over the next 25 years, he transformed the department at this leading HBCU. He taught general and organic chemistry to hundreds of students. He assembled an outstanding chemistry faculty and developed an undergraduate curriculum,” writes ACS. It is here also that he helped found the famed Infrared Spectroscopy Institute.

Brady also coordinated the construction of the first modern chemistry building at an HBCU. The building which opened in 1931 at Fisk now bears the name Talley-Brady Hall and is on the U.S. National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Hundreds of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students go to Talley-Brady Hall each day to take general chemistry or organic chemistry, or to work in one of the research labs.

It is thanks to Brady that Fisk has a reputation as a leading producer of African Americans in STEM.

When Brady retired from Fisk, he spent 14 years collaborating with educators at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, to help build their chemistry department. Over here, he continued studies aimed at developing cancer and malaria treatment from privet berries.

The married father of two died on Christmas day in Washington, D.C., in 1966 at the age of 82.

ACS honored Brady with a National Historic Chemical Landmark (NHCL) in a ceremony at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on February 5, 2019.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 31, 2020


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