Lesson 119:
Carolyn Beatrice Parker

An ongoing illustrative history study
This piece originally posted 3/5/2023

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Carolyn Parker - pen and ink, 2.5 in. x 3.5 in.

Another MIT alum! Meet Carolyn Beatrice Parker, the first Black woman to earn a postgraduate degree in Physics. Born in 1917 Florida, Carolyn was one of six siblings who all attained some form of advanced science degree --to include mathematics and chemistry. Her father, Julius A. Parker, was himself a physician and was the second Black American to attain a Ph.D in business from Harvard. Encouraged by such an unusually dedicated family, Carolyn herself graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Fisk University in 1937, and then earned her Master's in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1941. To fund her graduate studies, she taught physics and mathematics at a number of schools and universities in Florida and then in Virginia, but her career path would take an unusual detour once the United States entered World War II.

Between 1943 to 1947, Carolyn was recruited to the Dayton Project, one of the divisions of the Manhattan Project. Based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and spearheaded by the Monsanto Chemical Company, the Dayton Project is perhaps most famous for cracking the Enigma code, but the bulk of the project was primarily focused on extracting and developing polonium as the neutron initiator (detonator) for an atomic explosion. Parker's background in electronic testing and infrared spectroscopy made her an ideal fit despite the twin disadvantages of race and gender --while there were other women on the project, Carolyn was the only Black woman. According to her family the work was so top-secret that Parker couldn't discuss it with anyone --and in fact the details of her work remained classified until the late 1960's.

After the war Carolyn took a job as an Assistant Professor at her alma mater Fisk University, and then in 1952 she worked as a physicist attached to the geophysics research division at the Air Force Cambridge Research Center (Cambridge, Massachusetts). In 1953 Carolyn earned her second Master's in physics at MIT --the first Black woman to earn a postgraduate degree from that institution. [Abstract: Range distribution of 122 Mev (pi⁺) and (pi⁻) mesons in brass, Thesis (M.S.) Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Physics, 1953]

Parker then completed and submitted her coursework for her Ph.D. --sadly she never got the opportunity to defend her doctoral dissertation as she was diagnosed with leukemia. Sustained exposure to polonium excretion during her time on the Dayton Project was almost certainly the root cause, and while workers on the Dayton Project had submitted to weekly tests for radiation exposure, the process was inexact --anecdotally one colleague wrote about Parker's "unruly hair," which may have become contaminated, as the head coverings at Dayton had been designed for the short, finer hair of white men. Parker died in 1966 at the age of 48 and her achievements were largely forgotten by history, until very recently.

In August of 2020, an elementary school in her hometown of Gainesville, Florida that had originally been named for a Confederate general, was formally (and unanimously) renamed by the Alachua County School Board as Beatrice Parker Elementary School.

Worth a read: History And Philosophy of Physics, the newsletter of The American Physical Society, Vol. XV, No. 1 (Fall 2021) (PDF file)

Next page - Lesson 120: Annell Ponder

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