While continuing to teach and do research in physical organic chemistry, our native field, we — the authors of this Perspective — independently began to investigate the discipline’s history. By the 1980s, this avocation became a professional commitment. Given the coincidence of our interests and backgrounds, we went in search of a topic we could collaborate on. Meanwhile, one of us (Weininger) had become a chemistry editor of the New Dictionary of Scientific Biography, writing an entry on Paul Bartlett, America’s premier 20th century physical organic chemist (and Gortler’s Ph.D. supervisor). In the course of examining Bartlett’s papers in the Harvard University Archives, Weininger came across a file for Lawrence Knox, a name familiar to decades of students studying organic reaction mechanisms. Knox was the graduate student co-author of a 1938 paper (access may require a site license or ACS membership), with Bartlett, that immediately became a classic. What Knox’s file revealed — and what hardly any of the readers of his paper knew — was that Knox was African American. We had found our topic.
As we delved into the life and career of Larry Knox (as he was universally known), we learned that his older brother. William Knox Jr., had received a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1935, 5 years before Larry received his in organic chemistry from Harvard. (Another Knox, Clinton, received a Ph.D. in history in 1940. He was William and Larry’s younger brother.) William and Larry were two of about 30 African Americans earning Ph.D.s in all branches of chemistry between 1916 and 1940. Elijah Knox, the brothers’ grandfather, was born a slave in North Carolina and became a skilled carpenter. He bought his freedom in 1846 and then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, which had a long-established community of “Black Yankees.” One of his sons, William Knox Sr., started the drive for education that led to the astonishing rise of Elijah’s grandsons. A high school graduate, William Sr. earned the highest score in the 1903 New Bedford Civil Service Examination and became a post office accounts clerk. (William Sr. and his wife, Estella Briggs, also had two daughters; they were not given the same educational opportunities as the sons, although they both had postsecondary educations.)