Bringing the life, legacy of St. Elmo Brady into sharper focus 


After completing his PhD at the University of Illinois in 1916 and becoming the first African American in the U.S. with a doctorate in chemistry, St. Elmo Brady faced a difficult decision.

“Here I was an ambitious young man, who had all of the advantage of a great university, contact with great minds, and the use of all modern equipment. Was I willing to forget these and go back to a school in the heart of Alabama where I wouldn’t have even a Bunsen burner?” Brady once said, according to Samuel Massie, who was a student and collaborator of Brady's at Fisk University.  

Not only did Brady return to teaching at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, but he became an instrumental force in the develop­ment of chemical education programs and facilities at four well-known Historically Black Colleges and Universities that continue today: Tuskegee University, Howard Uni­versity, Fisk University and Touga­loo College.

“He’s just an amazing person,” said Vera V. Mainz, secretary/treasurer of the American Chemical Society Division of the History of Chemistry.

Mainz co-authored a new paper about Brady published in 2021 in the Bulletin for the History of Chemistry, a publication of the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry.

The paper describes a significant amount of new information about the inspiring life and accomplishments of St. Elmo Brady, who overcame many challenges to not only pursue his own education but provide educational opportunities for other African American students.

Mainz and co-authors Dean F. Martin, professor of chemistry at the University of South Florida, and Greg Girolami, professor of chemistry at Illinois, hope that the new information about his ancestry, personal life, education and career “will help to bring St. Elmo Brady into sharper focus and greater recognition.”

The life work of this remarkable pioneer in chemical education deserves to be remembered, the authors explain in the paper. Brady also serves as an inspiration for all chemists, but particularly African American chemists.

Brady’s grandfather, Joseph Brady, was born into slavery in Maryland around 1816. By the 1850 census, he was listed as a freedman working in Louisville, KY, where his grandson, St. Elmo Brady, was born 34 years later.

That is one small piece of the extensive amount of new information in the paper about the life of St. Elmo Brady, who graduated from Central Colored High School in Louisville in 1903 with honors, and went on to Fisk University, an all-black college in Nashville, where his chemistry teacher, Thomas W. Talley, encouraged him to study chemistry.

After graduation, Brady accepted a teaching position at what is now Tuskegee University. Four years later, he accepted a scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and in 1916, became the first African American in the U.S. with a PhD in chemistry.  

According to the paper, "Brady’s mother, Celester Parker Brady, named her son “after the protagonist of one of the most popular novels of the 19th century, St. Elmo, which had been written by the Georgia native Augusta Jane Evans (1835-1909) in 1866. It was not uncommon for young men to be named St. Elmo after the hero of the novel, whose sales in the late 19th century were exceeded only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin...”

Much of the new information in the paper was the result of the authors connecting with relatives of St. Elmo Brady in preparation for two National Historic Chemical Landmarks (NHCL) on the UIUC campus. The first was the 2002 designation of the William Albert Noyes Laboratory as an NHCL by the American Chemical Society, in which Brady was highlighted.

The second was in February 2019, when the ACS recognized the Brady legacy with the dedication of an NHCL in Noyes Laboratory on the UIUC campus where Brady completed his doctorate in 1916.

Both family and friends of Brady attended the ceremony, including W. Clay Fonvielle, Brady’s great-grandson, and Carol Brady Fonvielle, Brady’s granddaughter who knew her grandfather well, having lived with him in Washington D.C. when she was a young girl.

“She (Carol Brady Fonvielle) had an amazing cache of photos and was willing to share that information,” Mainz said. “And that really contributed to this article.”

Mainz said anything that she learned from Fonvielle she tried to include in the paper. “I thought it was critical for this information to be made public,” said Mainz, who combed newspaper archives, government records as well as various documents and records from Fisk University, where Mainz discovered that Brady’s activities “extended well beyond chemistry.”

Newspaper reports show he acted in a play (The Merchant of Venice) staged by the Fisk University junior college class. Brady played Gratiano, a witty and fun-loving character who loves to talk and is almost impossible to shut up; a review of Brady’s performance said he played his character well… Brady was also the editor for several years of the Fisk Herald, a monthly college journal published by the literary societies of Fisk University, started in 1883. Brady was a member of the Fisk Glee Club… was a member of Fisk’s football team and was named to an African American All-American team ... He graduated from Fisk with a B.S. degree in 1908 Magna cum Laude and was one of several speakers at the commencement ceremony...”

Two photos presented in the paper from the cache that Fonvielle shared is a picture of George Washington Carver and another is of Booker T. Washington. Both were gifts to Brady from Carver and from Washington.

Brady was once quoted as saying, “I had the extreme privilege of knowing personally Dr. Washington, the great educator, and Dr. Carver, the beloved saint and great scientist. It was the friendship of these two men that showed me the real value of giving one’s self and effort to help the other fellow.”

The cache also includes a photo of a young Brady sitting on the campus of Tuskegee University around 1910 and a photo of Brady with his wife Myrtle Marie Travers. They had married in 1917, the year after he completed his PhD.

“We thought there should be a more definitive article written (about Brady) especially with information we were finding from the family,” said Mainz, who explained that they now have much more academic, professional and personal information about Brady as well as more photos. Previously, she said, only one picture of him was widely available.  One of the new photos was found in the UIUC Archives and shows a group of students in a Noyes lab that included Brady.

Although this definitive paper brings the life of Brady into much sharper focus, some questions remain unanswered, such as what led Brady to the University of Illinois.

No obvious or direct link has been discovered, according to Mainz. As their paper explains, the first black president of Grinnell College noted that in the early 1900s some state universities in the Midwest such as Illinois were open to educating African Americans in their graduate programs.

“Brady was far from the only African-American student on the Illinois campus, but the percentage of African-American students on the campus was tiny: 0.67% (48 out of 7157) in 1919.”

Although Brady was surely subject to discriminatory practices of that era while a graduate student at UIUC, Mainz said she is proud of the fact that – according to Brady’s personal recollections -- in the Department of Chemistry he was welcomed and allowed to flourish, get his degree and do the research that he obviously loved.

Mainz said she is inspired by the challenges that he overcame to pursue his passion for science, from high school to college to his PhD and beyond.

“And to not just succeed, but to hit a home run. Anyone can take inspiration from his story,” she said.

Sibrina N. Collins, an inorganic chemist and the executive director of The Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University, has written in Nature Chemistry about storytelling in chemical education being a powerful educational tool to help address equity in the chemical sciences.

“The problem is that few chemistry faculty teach in this way, and they often miss the opportunity to intertwine classroom content with the stories and intellectual achievements of women and chemists of colour,” Collins wrote.

Just after defending her PhD in 2000 at Ohio State University, Collins said a faculty member first told her about St. Elmo Brady earning his PhD in 1916.

“I was inspired and shocked. At that point, I emailed Professor Gregory S. Girolami at Illinois because I wanted to learn more about Dr. Brady's background,” said Collins, who has read this latest paper on Brady’s life and legacy.

Collins said it is the best peer-reviewed paper she has read on the impact of Dr. Brady's legacy in the chemical sciences.

“What I found most fascinating is that Dr. Brady and Dr. Edward Marion Augustus Chandler were living in the same boarding house as graduate students.  Can you imagine the conversations between the two of them being the first and second African Americans earning PhDs in chemistry?” Collins said. “I am not sure, at that time, they really knew of the historical significance of their achievements.”

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