Though piecing the story together can be difficult, we need to remember and honor the contributions of African-Americans to ASM


Marian Johnson-Thompson


Marian Johnson-Thompson is Director of Education and Biomedical Research Development at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, N.C., Professor Emeritus of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C., and a member of the ASM Archives Committee.


* The achievements of African-Americans in ASM build on those of pioneers of an era  when opportunities were almost nonexistent

* ASM’s status as the first major nonminority bioscience organization to elect a minority president is one measure of the progress that has been made

* The Society’s efforts to attract and retain minorities in microbiology have expanded greatly in the last two decades

* Further efforts are essential to improving opportunities for minorities in the sciences

Exactly 10 years ago, an article appeared in ASM News that addressed the early contributions of American born blacks to the microbiological sciences (ASM News, February 1997, p. 77–82). The 1997 article was the first of its kind; and while others previously had penned a variety of narratives that included articles, chapters, and books on the contributions of African- American scientists, none had focused on microbiologists. This follow-up to the 1997 article will primarily focus on subsequent contributions by African-American microbiologists with specific emphasis on their contributions to ASM. As the Society recognizes Black History Month in February, it is appropriate that this group’s contributions be highlighted in Microbe.
Ten years after the original article, ASM has elected the first African-American to be its president, Clifford Houston of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. This is a significant milestone in the Society’s history; in order to have reached this milestone, many changes have occurred within the Society to pave the way for Houston’s election and for ASM to be the first major nonminority bioscience organization to elect a minority president. It is important to remember the incremental steps taken by both Houston and minority scientists, and by the many nonminority ASM members who supported events that led to this historical event.

Such events, while important to African-Americans, are also important for the Society’s archives as they document the early and continuing contributions of minority groups. The Archives serves as a useful resource for those interested in this topic. Some might wonder why we should document such events; however, if we do not, the history of a people will be lost. Moreover, their important roles and values are diminished or never known. If the ASM Archives had never been searched for the name of William Hinton, a physician researcher who received the M.D. degree from Harvard University in 1912, it would not have been known that an African-American was a member of the Society as early as 1921. The 1921 membership roster is the earliest found in the Society’s record, and it is conceivable that he was a member before that time. The fact that William Hinton’s parents were former slaves shows that opportunities opened up during Reconstruction. Hinton apparently never attended an ASM meeting. His daughter, Jane Hinton codeveloper of Mueller- Hinton agar, said that this was because he did not want it known that he was a Negro, and that if this were known, his work would not have been recognized. Before her death, Jane Hinton relayed much about her father’s life, his relationship with Harvard University, and how his professional battles with racism affected their family.

Another look at the Society’s records shows that Ruth Moore, the first African-American to complete a traditional Ph.D. in microbiology in 1933, from Ohio State University, was registered for the 1936 meeting in Indianapolis, Ind. Both Hildrus A. Poindexter (M.D., Harvard, 1929; M.A. and Ph.D., Columbia, 1930, 1932, during internship residency training) and Moore were registered for the 1937 meeting in Washington, D.C., but they did not become Society members until 1944 and 1947, respectively.

The recorded involvement of blacks in the early part of the Society’s history has been extensively researched by former ASM Archivist Jeff Karr. Thomas Smith (1909–2006), U.S. Air Force Colonel, Ph.D., University of Bonn, Germany, and one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, joined ASM as a full member in 1947 and was a continuous member through 2005.

The 1997 article primarily reflected “firsts” in terms of U.S.-born blacks who attained advanced degrees in microbiology during the first half of the 20th century. This beginning participation of U.S.-born black microbiologists was preceded by the removal of segregation practices, particularly in the southern states, that prevented full attendance at Society meetings; and of general societal practices that promoted exclusion. Thus, it was not until the 1980s that African-Americans began to fully participate in ASM activities and assume leadership positions. (With perhaps one exception—Welton Taylor served on the editorial boards of Applied Microbiology from 1968–1970 and [as a founding editor] of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology from 1978–1983).

Times have changed, and environments are more supportive of the presence of blacks in the discipline of microbiology and in ASM. Previously, those few who attained degrees in microbiology faced many barriers. It was extremely difficult to find employment, and most could attain a position only at a historically black college or university (HBCU) or at a secondary school. Typically, these schools did not have the resources to support microbiological research and subsequently, these well-trained individuals ended up solely in teaching careers. This was true for other black scientists. Edward Bouchet (1852–1918), the first black to earn a Ph.D. in the United States (in Physics at Yale in 1886) spent most of his career teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth, a college preparatory school, in Philadelphia. Bouchet ranked 6th in a class of 124 and, in 1874, was the first black man in the nation to be nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, but he was not elected until 1884. George Henderson at the University of Vermont was elected as the first black member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1877. As one reflects on the hardships faced by these early pioneers, one becomes overwhelmed with emotion and a strong need to hold in esteem and honor these individuals who paved the way. And so we salute them.

Increasing the Participation of Black Microbiologists in ASM
When one looks at the black microbiologists who provided the leadership, from within, to increase the participation of black microbiologists in Society activities, one has to highlight the role of James Jay. Jay, Professor Emeritus of Biological Science, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich., is best known for his classic popular textbook, Modern Food Microbiology, now in its 7th edition (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 2005). Released first in 1970 in English, the text has been published in Spanish, Hindi, Malaysian, and Chinese. Long revered by many, Jay is the singular individual who has been a repository of historical accomplishments and activities by black microbiologists, and he has played a significant role in mentoring many. Because of this, he is respectfully and honorably referred to as the “Father of Black Microbiologists,” and this article is dedicated to him.
The actual involvement of blacks in Society activities occurred at a very slow pace up to the mid-1990s. There were several nonminority ASM members who played significant roles in reversing this trend. One such individual who ranks high above others is Harlyn O. Halvorson (ASM President, 1974, and former chair of the Public and Scientific Affairs Board [PSAB], 1979–1987). As PSAB chair, Halvorson appointed ASM’s first minority committee and was a tireless supporter of advancing the involvement of minorities in Society activities. Halvorson demonstrated what can be accomplished when those in leadership positions call attention to an issue.

Mobilizing Black Microbiologists

Jay was a mentor and role model for many black microbiologists who attended ASM meetings in the 1970s and onward. It was at the 1978 General Meeting that I met Jay. He was busy organizing a group to meet on the outside perimeter of the convention center. At that time, there was no ASM-sponsored reception for minority microbiologists, and black meeting attendees would usually meet in a hotel room or at a restaurant over dinner. In 1981 Jay did a mailing to organize a formal gathering for the 1982 Atlanta meeting. The gathering was held at the Atlanta America, and invitees were asked to donate $7.00 to cover refreshments. Atlanta University cordially paid for the location; and Rena Jones of Spellman College, who incidentally received her Ph.D. under Jay, organized the event. At the 1983 meeting in New Orleans, the gathering was held at the New Orleans Marriott Hotel, the donation request was $10.00, and the group was growing. In 1984 or 1985, ASM began to sponsor the reception, and today the ASM Minority Mixer is well attended not only by minorities but by a diverse group of ASM members, including the Society’s officers.

Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities (CMIIM)

In 1984, Halvorson appointed the Committee on the Status of Minority Microbiologists (CSMM) (now the Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities [CMIIM]) with Gerald Stokes of George Washington University, Washington, D.C., as chair. Stokes chaired the committee until 1993; however, Henry Williams of the University of Maryland Dental School served as interim chair during a period when Stokes took leave to pursue tenure. Under the leadership of Stokes and Williams several very successful initiative were established. These included the ASM/NIGMS Minority Student Science Careers Support Program (MSSCSP), initiated in 1986 along with the MSSCP Visiting Scientist Program; the establishment of minority microbiologists directories; recommendations of minority ASM members to serve on ASM committees and editorial boards; publication of the Mentor newsletter; and sponsorship of roundtable or symposium sessions at the ASM General Meetings.

Additionally, an ASM-sponsored national fellowship program for minority graduate students in the microbiological sciences, established in 1980, was renamed the Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowship in 1997. Watkins served as ASM’s Public Relations Director and was the first African-American to serve in a major staff position at ASM, and he was very active in promoting ASM’s minority programs. Finally, CSMM was a founding member and the Society’s representation to the SuperMAC, a coalition of minorities’ affairs committees (MAC) of professional scientific organizations, established in 1993. The purpose of the SuperMAC is to collectively address common concerns of each MAC and to present a unified public policy/agenda to individual councils of scientific societies and to the nation.

Following Stokes’ tenure, John Allen of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University served as chair through 1997. In 1997, Carlos Del Rio of Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., was appointed chair, and he served until 2003. During the period from 1993 to 2003, CSMM initiatives continued and some activites previously handled by CSMM were transferred to other newly formed ASM minority committees.

With the appointment of Marian Johnson- Thompson, in 2003, the CSMM reassessed its role in light of the newly established minority committees. Thus, CSMM was renamed the Committee on Microbiological Issues Impacting Minorities (CMIIM) and revised its mission. Though education and membership continued to be important policy concerns of the committee, programs to address these areas were shifted to the Education and Membership Boards, respectively. Nevertheless, CMIIM continued the policy-focused initiatives established by the CSMM and expanded its activities to include the establishment of an ASM General Meeting travel grant, with NIAID/NIH support and publication of an electronic newsletter, The Minority Microbiology Mentor.

Efforts by the Education Board

During the mid-1990s, the Precollege Committee of the Education Board initiated the “Heroes of Microbiology” poster featuring minorities for middle school students. With this poster being highly successful and in great demand, the committee decided to do a similar poster focusing on women, and the “Heroines of Microbiology” poster followed.

A significant milestone occurred when Houston was appointed chair of the Education Board in 1997, becoming the Society’s first African- American Board chair. During Houston’s tenure there was a major increase in efforts to attract minority participation. One big accomplishment was the Society’s NIH award to manage the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS). ABRCMS has become the largest professional conference for minority students, with over 2,600 registrants. As a result of this effort, Houston received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring in 2000.

Expansion of ASM’s Minority Committees

Earlier efforts of CSMM led to the establishment of a Minority Task Force, cochaired by Henry Williams and Gail Cassell of the University of Alabama, Birmingham (currently at Eli Lilly and a former ASM President). This Task Force’s recommendations led to additional minority committees and increased efforts to include minority members in ASM activities.

The Committee on Minority Education of the Education Board was created in 1993, and its first chair was George Hill (Meharry Medical College). In 1997, the Underrepresented Members Committee (UMC) of the Membership Board was created, and its first chair was George Counts of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, now retired. The UMC has established several initiatives, including the Faces of ASM Series, an Online Mentoring Program, and a mechanism for ensuring that minority members interested in serving on committees and editorial boards are able to do so. The American Academy of Microbiology (AAM) established a Diversity Committee in 1999, chaired by Eugene Cota Robles of the University of California Santa Cruz, now retired. In 2003, Marian Johnson-Thompson was appointed chair of the Diversity Committee and became the first African-American to hold this position. Each of these committees has missions to increase minority participation in their respective domains.

Hinton Award

Another outcome of the Minority Task Force was the establishment of the William A. Hinton Research Training Award in 1997. This award honors outstanding contributions fostering the research training of underrepresented minorities in microbiology and is directed by the American Academy of Microbiology, as are all of the Society’s awards programs. The first Hinton Award Committee was chaired by James Jay, and the first award was made in 1998 to Luther Williams of the National Science Foundation (currently at Tuskegee University). Table 1 lists subsequent laureates.

 It is instructive to look at similar awards of other professional societies. The American Society of Cell Biology Minorities Affairs Committee was launched in 1980, and in 1984 its members established the E. E. Just Award. The Minorities in Cancer Research Committee of the American Association for Cancer Research, only recently established the Jane Wright (1919 - ) Award, in 2006. The National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE), organized in 1972, made its first Percy Julian (1899–1975) Award in 1974. The American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific organization, elected Henry A. Hill as its first African-American President in 1977. Following his death in 1979, the Henry Hill Award was established, and it is presented by the ACS Division of Professional Relations.

American Academy of Microbiology
The American Academy of Microbiology (AAM) has more than 2,000 elected members. Welton Taylor, elected in 1974, is believed to be the first African-American Fellow, there are some 2 dozen African-American members (Table 2). A review of election dates show that most were elected in the 1990s. African-American Fellows have participated in AAM colloquia and on the AAM’s Board of Governors, and two members have served as chairs of AAM committees. The dates of certification by the American Board of Medical Microbiology (ABMM) are strictly confidential; however, Welton Taylor is believed to be the first African American to be certified as a Diplomate of the ABMM.

Other Milestones

Table 3. Landmark events in the history of African-American ASM microbiologists, part II

In 1999, the Society celebrated its centennial year, and one African-American—Ed Hanna of the National Institutes of Health—served on the Centennial Planning Committee. On the covers of the preliminary and final program booklets, only six microbiologists were featured, and Hinton was among the six. Additionally, a poster was displayed that featured contributions by microbiologists and Hinton was included.

ASM began to form student chapters in 1990. While Johnson-Thompson served on the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Membership, the Thomas B. Smith Student Chapter was established at Howard University, in 1991 the first such chapter at a HBCU.

ASM has significantly increased its efforts to engage underrepresented members in all facets of Society activities and to increase the participation of this group in the microbiological sciences. The early efforts of black microbiologists and subsequent efforts have paved the way for emerging black microbiologists and other underrepresented groups to be able to enjoy the full range of Society opportunities. Now that we have reached this point, we must continue the momentum and never forget the efforts of those who worked to ensure that a member of an underrepresented minority could become president of ASM.

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