First Black woman to obtain a graduate degree in physics involved in top secret US mission

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 an 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’ sister was one of the first African American women to receive a PhD in geology.

What is even more striking is that only one 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 have gotten as a side affect of working with polonium. In 1947 she became an assistant professor at Fisk University and passed away due to leukemia at the age of 47 in 1966.

Although 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 is one of the most strategically important scientific projects during World War II, which was involved 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 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.

Thus, putting it in perspective, the Manhattan Project was a place made up of incredibly talented people working for highly important and strategic government project. Suffice it to say, being selected to work in the Manhattan Project spoke volumes about the academic potential and promise of the scientists who were selected to work there, and among them was Carolyn Parker.

Carolyn was part of the Dayton Project, which was a top secret site for the Manhattan Project, centered around working with the radioactive element polonium in the effort to find an initiator for the atomic bomb.

The code name for the initiator was Urchin.

Although it was a difficult to work with Polonium, as it was available in limited quantities, coupled with the fact that scientists were unsure if it could be purified, not to mentioned the extra pressure of working under a time race during to the war. Due to this it became one of the key initiatives in the race for the atomic bomb. To no surprise, the activities involved in this research project were clandestine and had to be kept in 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. However, her participation in this project speaks volumes of 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!