9 Black People Who Made an Impact in Physics

As the focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) grows and Black people are more encouraged to take on STEM studies and careers, this article pays homage to Black men and women who were pioneers in the realm of physics, according to Physics Buzz and Buffalo University’s Physicists of the African Diaspora.

Edward Bouchet was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. from a university in the United States. He received his doctorate in 1876 from Yale after studying optics, but he had trouble finding a teaching position afterwards because of his race. He took a position teaching physics and chemistry at the Institute of Colored Youth in Pennsylvania for 26 years, then moved around to several different colleges and high schools at the end of his career.


Elmer Imes was the second African-American to receive a physics doctorate, and the first to publish research. His work, published in 1920, on molecular infrared spectroscopy provided one of the earliest tests of quantum theory. Despite his scientific achievements, he also had trouble finding employment at a university or college and spent the next 10 years of his life at different industrial labs. In 1930, he became the chairman of the physics department at Fisk University.


Willie Hobbs Moore was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Michigan in 1972 on vibrational analysis of secondary chlorides. While at Michigan, Moore worked for Datamax. She also held engineering positions at Bendix Aerospace Systems, Barnes Engineering and Sensor Dynamics, where she was responsible for the theoretical analysis.