Annals of science journalism have not always been as inclusive as they could be. Yes PopSci works to adjust the record with In retrospect, a series presenting some of the figures whose contributions we have missed. Read their stories and see the rest of our coverage of the 150th anniversary here.
Many of us Black physicists know Edward A. Boucher as the first African-American doctor. in the area. Nineteenth-century historians of black education know him as the first African-American to earn a doctorate. in any subject. And in fact, when Yale College awarded him this academic award in 1876, Boucher was part of a moment that was not only transformative, viewed through the prism of race: he became one of the first 20 people to win this degree in the United States. These first doctors continued to be professors and leaders, at the forefront of a wave of change in American intellectual life.
Boucher may have been part of this generation, but the contours of his trajectory are clear. As a black man in a segregated rental market, he had few job opportunities. As was the case with so many black Americans facing discrimination, Boucher found his home in a black institution, where he in turn created opportunities for a new generation of black students.
Edward Alexander Boucher was born in September 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut, a country where slavery is not only legal but fundamental to the national economy. The North is often remembered as a refuge from racism. But, as Cabri Baumgartner describes in his award-winning book In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Prewar America, just 20 years before the birth of Boucher, a school in Canterbury, Connecticut had to be closed after members of the white community reacted violently to 20 young black women attending. Boucher himself attends segregated primary schools.
Although its history begins in New England, Boucher has southern roots. His father, William, was born into slavery in South Carolina; in 1824, the family that owned it took him to New Haven to work for free as their son’s servant while he visited Yale. Eventually, William gained his freedom and became a prominent member of the first black parish in New Haven, the Congregational Church on Temple Street (now United Church of Christ on Dixwell Avenue) and a maintenance worker at Yale College. He and his free-born wife, Susan Cooley Boucher, a college laundress, watched the rich white sons of power learn how to wield that power. There they saw opportunities for their son. Boucher attended an academy that provided food aid to Yale College, graduating in farewell.
He graduated with honors from Yale College in 1874 and remained for his doctorate. He completed his doctorate in two years, writing a dissertation on measuring how light bends when passing through different glasses. One can easily imagine that the story goes on: “Then he became the first black professor of physics at Yale College. And certainly, in some version of the universe, where the majority of white institutions were not deeply rooted in the legacy of the profits from slavery and the maintenance of white supremacythat’s exactly what happened.
In this universe, however, instead of compromising institutional excellence in the face of exclusion, Boucher transferred his brilliance to a home created by blacks for each other — one in which black supremacy was welcomed, expected, and celebrated. The Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), now known as Cheney University in Pennsylvania, a famous school whose alumni include an ambassador, civil rights leaders, the first black woman to head a science college, and a second black woman doctor, hired Boucher to teach science. : physics, astronomy, chemistry, geography and physiology.
For more than 25 years, he has cultivated a curiosity about the universe in a generation of black intellectuals and professionals and has helped maintain an important object of black education. ICY students during Boucher’s tenure included Julian F. Abel, an architect at Duke University Chapel, and an associate designer at Harvard’s Widener Library and the Central Library and Museum of Art in Philadelphia; and James B. Dudley, second president of A&T State University in North Carolina. Boucher himself is also an example of an early model of community-engaged black scientist giving public lectures to black audiences while advocating for science education.
Over the past few decades, Boucher has become a symbol of black perfection, ambition and delayed dreams. This began in 1988, when Nobel Prize-winning physicist Abdus Salam and black American physicist Joseph Andrew Johnson III founded the Edward Boucher-ICTP Institute in recognition of the first famous man of African descent to win a doctorate. in the area. (The Institute was renamed the Edouard Boucher Institute Abdus Salam [EBASI] in 1998 in honor of Salam, who died in 1996) EBASI supports the professional development of African physics students, while strengthening cooperation between African and American scientists through international conferences and seminars. There is the Edward Alexander Boucher Alumni Society, founded in 2005 at Yale University, an institution that he continues to struggle not only with his historical participation in slaverybut also contemporary racial discrimination and inequality.
There is also the Edward A. Boucher Prize of the American Physical Society, which I received in 2021, which pays tribute to a minority physicist who also stands out in research and raises the place of marginalized people in this field. The double success that the award recognizes is emblematic of the life that Boucher himself led: a whole, curious about the universe-human being, whose life is marked by parts of society that refuse to recognize his humanity.
Boucher was unjustly denied the opportunity to make a lasting, direct contribution as a researcher, but his footprint is present in other ways. Many of us are following in his footsteps. Because of the career he has taken – and the black institutions that have supported intellectuals like him – more and more of us have a better chance now. Even when a certain level of integration has occurred and we are sometimes able to obtain the resources to excel, we continue to fight against the superiority of white. Boucher’s love for science and our community reminds us to move forward.