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American Chemical Society celebrates Black History Month with salute to Samuel P. Massie

American Chemical Society

Chemist Samuel P. Massie is a hero who has fulfilled his own ambition. "I've always wanted," he says, "to be known as a teacher who cared about his students, and one who made a difference in their lives."

The first African-American professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Massie was one of three African-Americans - along with George Washington Carver and Percy Julian - recognized in 1998 as among the 75 most distinguished chemists of all time by Chemical and Engineering News, the weekly news magazine published by the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

As Director Rita R. Colwell of the National Science Foundation observed, Massie's work "has extended well beyond the laboratory" and "paved the way for African American and other minorities" in education and in science and engineering. Massie received NSF's Distinguished Public Service Award in 1998.

Massie, 81, of Laurel, Md., was born to school teachers in Little Rock, Ark., in 1919. Because his parents were not allowed to teach at the same school, he moved to the country with his mother and accompanied her to classes through the sixth grade. Massie moved smartly through elementary school, two grades at a time.

Graduating from high school at 13, he wanted to attend the University of Arkansas and search for a cure for asthma, from which his father suffered. But blacks were not admitted in those years, and he earned his undergraduate degree instead at the Agricultural, Mechanical, Normal (A.M.N.) College of Arkansas (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) at age 18 and his master's from Fisk University in Nashville, both black institutions.

After a year as acting head of the math and physics department back at A.M.N., Massie enrolled in a doctoral program at Iowa State University in Ames. He was not allowed to sleep in the same dormitory or use the same science lab as white students. "The laboratory for the white boys was on the second floor next to the library," he recalls. "My laboratory was in the basement next to the rats - separate but equal."

Massie earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry at 21. Years later, in l981, Iowa State honored him with its Distinguished Achievement Citation, the university's highest alumni award. The title of his acceptance speech, he says with pride but no anger, was "From the Basement Next to the Rats."

With Ph.D. freshly in hand, Massie returned to Fisk as a teacher. He went on to chair Fisk's chemistry department and later held the same position at Langston University and (in pharmaceutical chemistry) at Howard University. In the early 1960s, he was associate program director at the National Science Foundation and, from 1963 to1966, served as president of North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University).

Over the years he has done research to synthesize drugs for cancer, malaria, tuberculosis, sickle-cell anemia, hypertension, gonorrhea and herpes. In 1985, with two midshipmen and colleagues from Walter Reed Army Institute, Massie was granted a patent for a chemical effective as an anti-gonorrheal agent.

During his tenure at Annapolis, which began in 1966, Massie taught chemistry, co-founded a black studies program and, from 1977 to 1981, chaired the Academy's chemistry department. In 1993 the Academy's alumni association elected him to honorary membership, making him the second civilian professor to be so honored and the first African-American.

In 1994 the U.S. Department of Energy created the Dr. Samuel P. Massie Chair of Excellence Program to help nine historically black colleges and universities, and one Hispanic-serving institution, produce highly-qualified graduates in environmental disciplines. For more information, see

The ACS Scholars Program encourages African American and other minority students to study chemistry. Since its inception in 1995, the program has provided more than 750 students with scholarships of up to $2,500 per year. Scholarship applications for the 2001-2002 year are being accepted through March 1. For more information, call toll-free at 800-227-5558 ext. 6250, or visit the ACS website at


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