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The First African American Woman To Obtain A Graduate Degree In Physics Was Involved In A Top Secret US Mission

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  • Tip Bones

February marks Black history month, or a time when we as a society remember the many contributions of African Americans in the history of the United States. It is only fitting that we remember the work, life and inspiration of Carolyn Parker, the first African American woman known to receive a graduate degree in physics and subsequently work in the top secret government project, known as the Manhattan Project. 

Carolyn Parker was born on November 18, 1917 to a very educated and established family in Gainesville, Florida. Science and accomplishment ran in her family. Her father was a medical doctor and also the second African American to receive a PhD in business in Harvard, and her mother’s sister was one of the first African American women to receive a PhD in geology. What is even more striking is that only one out of Carolyn’s five siblings didn’t receive a degree in mathematics or the sciences! Carolyn graduated Magna Cum Laude, with a degree in Mathematics from Fisk University, and later on Masters in Mathematics from University of Michigan. She later went on to do her doctoral studies at MIT and received a Masters degree in Physics, but was not able to complete her PhD due to leukemia, which she thought was caused by working with the radioactive material polonium. In 1947 she became an assistant professor at Fisk University and passed away due to leukemia at the age of 47 in 1966. 

Very little information is offered about her work, most likely due to the fact that it was so secret that she could not talk about it to her family, which is generally the case when one is involved in a project such as the Manhattan Project. For those of us who may not be familiar with the Manhattan Project, it was one of the most strategically important scientific projects during World War II. It was the main project in the race for the creation of the first atomic bomb. Albert Einstein famously sent a letter to the US warning them that the Nazi forces may get to the knowledge of how to create an atomic bomb first, which catalyzed the American efforts in this area. Several high profile scientists worked on the Manhattan Project. One example is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern quantum mechanics. Other scientists involved in this project were at the frontier of science and made important contributions to the fields of physics and mathematics. In simple terms, the Manhattan Project was a project made up of incredibly talented people working for a highly important and strategic government project.

to this it became one of the key initiatives in the race for the atomic bomb. Unsurprisingly, the activities involved in this research project were clandestine and had to be kept top secret. Scientists even used a playhouse as a laboratory to work with polonium. In order to conceal this fact, an army general stated that the playhouse was used as a laboratory for the Army Signal Corps. Although Carolyn Parker was involved in highly important initiative, due to the high profile nature of this project, coupled with its top secrecy, it is hard to find out more details about the actual work she was involved in.

Parker’s participation in this project speaks volumes about her scientific genius and promise, in addition to giving us both pride and inspiration in our history and the contributions of women to science during a time when few women were active participants in high profile decision making endeavors in our society. Thus, let us draw inspiration from Carolyn Parker and remember no matter how hard it may seem, everything is possible!