‘I’d like to be remembered as a teacher who cared … as a man who tried to make a difference,” once remarked Dr. Samuel P. Massie, a noted chemistry professor and researcher.
In his long and distinguished career, the native Arkansan broke barriers in science and society that truly made the world better.
Samuel Proctor Massie, Jr., was born in Little Rock in July 1919. It was clear from a very young age that he was a genius. His parents were teachers and encouraged his gifted mind and love of academics. He was reading at age two. By the age of ten, he was already in high school. He graduated at the age of 13 in 1932.
He would often tell audience in speeches years later that he lived by the words “if it is to be, it is up to me.” It would be a long, difficult road for Massie to live up to his early promise and achieve his dreams. He took some time off after high school to work at a local grocery store to save money for college. He enrolled at Dunbar Junior College in 1934 and was elected student body president in 1935. He earned an associate’s degree.
He hoped to enroll at the University of Arkansas, but segregation laws prevented him from enrolling. Instead, he enrolled at what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1936, majoring in chemistry. He graduated college two years later at the age of 18. He earned a scholarship to Fisk University in Tennessee and earned a masters degree in 1940.
Now just 21, he returned to Pine Bluff to teach at the university as a professor of math and physics. The next year, hoping to pursue still further education, he enrolled in the doctoral program at Iowa State University. However, racial prejudice prevented him from living on or near campus and had to walk three miles to the college each day.
The outbreak of World War II changed Massie’s life. Because of his status as a chemist pursuing a doctorate, he was exempt from the draft. However, a member of the Jefferson County draft board in 1943 decided to revoke his exemption because he was black. However, one of his professors, Dr. Henry Gilman, heard about his situation and offered him a different way to serve. Gilman brought Massie in to work with his team on an aspect of the Manhattan Project. For two years, Massie served as a research chemist on the development of the first atomic bomb.
Massie received his doctorate in organic chemistry from Iowa State in 1946. He then accepted a professorship at Fisk University. In 1947, he became a professor at Langston University in Oklahoma, eventually rising to become president of the Oklahoma Academy of Science in 1953 at a time when Oklahoma schools and universities were still segregated.
He returned to Fisk in 1953 and published his groundbreaking research on a new substance, phenothizine. This research yielded important breakthroughs in cancer research and mental illness treatment. One of these breakthroughs included the development of the psychiatric drug thorazine. In 1960, he began working for the National Science Foundation and was named one of the best chemistry professors in the nation by the Manufacturing Chemists Association in 1961. In 1963, he became president of North Carolina College.
In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Dr. Massie to a chemistry professorship at the U. S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Massie was the first African-American to teach at the historic institution. He continued his research into organic chemistry and expanded his interests into the study of the environment. Respected by cadets and colleagues alike, he came to chair the chemistry department by 1977. He later helped establish a black studies program at the academy. In 1985, Massie and his team of researchers were awarded a patent for a new antibiotic treatment for gonorrhea.
As his career came to a close, Massie was showered with awards and praise for his decades of scholarship. He formally retired from teaching in 1993 at the age of 74.
He was awarded many honorary doctorate for his work, including from the University of Arkansas. In 1992, the Samuel P. Massie Educational Endowment Fund was established on his behalf to provide scholarships for students in Maryland. Naval Academy students touched by his work named him an honorary alumnus in 1993. In 1994, the Department of Energy established the Samuel P. Massie Chair of Excellence, a $14.7 million fund, to finance graduate students in the sciences and research into the environment at ten universities. Samuel P. Massie Elementary School in Forestville, Maryland, was also named for him. He published his autobiography, Catalyst: The Autobiography of an American Chemist, in 2004. He died in Maryland after a long illness at age 85 in April 2005.
The famed physicist Albert Einstein once commented, “Great spirits have often encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” In the long history of science, there has often been opposition to the facts about the world from those who are unable to understand these truths or hatred for those who report them, always to their own detriment. In the life of Samuel P. Massie, a gentle scholar persisted and expanded the limits of knowledge and made a difference.