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Elmer Samuel Imes (October 12, 1883 – 1941) was the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics and the first in the 20th century. He was among the first African-American scientists to make important contributions to modern physics. While working in industry, he gained four patents for instruments to be used for measuring magnetic and electric properties. As an academic, he developed and chaired the department of physics at Fisk University, serving from 1930 to 1941.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he was the child of college-educated parents. His father's family were people of color who had been free since before the American Revolution. His mother's family, former slaves, had moved to Oberlin, Ohio, after the American Civil War. Both his parents graduated from Oberlin College.

Early life and educationEdit

Elmer S. Imes was born in 1883 in Memphis, Tennessee to Elizabeth (née Wallace) and Benjamin A. Imes, both of whom were college educated and had met at Oberlin College in Ohio. They married there in 1880.[1] His father earned a divinity degree at Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1880. Benjamin was descended from free people of color, who had been established in south-central Pennsylvania by the time of the Revolution. His mother Elizabeth was born into slavery; her family had moved to Oberlin when she was a child, after the American Civil War and emancipation. Imes had two younger brothers: Albert Lovejoy Imes and William Lloyd Imes. The latter became a minister and was later pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in New York City; he held degrees from Fisk, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University.[2]

Imes and his brothers attended grammar school in Oberlin, Ohio. Their parents became missionaries with the American Missionary Association and moved to the South to serve freedmen and their children. Imes completed his high school education at the Agricultural and Mechanical High School in Normal, Alabama. He graduated in 1903 from Fisk University, a historically black college, with a bachelor's degree in science.[2]

Upon graduating from Fisk, Imes taught mathematics and physics at Georgia Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Albany State University), a historically black college in Albany, Georgia, and the Emerson Institute. The latter had been founded in Mobile, Alabama by the American Missionary Association. Imes returned to Fisk in 1913 as an instructor of science and mathematics. During his tenure there, Imes also earned a master's degree in science from Fisk University.

He went to the University of Michigan for additional study in physics, earning a Ph.D. in physics in 1918. He studied under Harrison McAllister Randall. Imes was the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in physics since Edward Bouchet did so from Yale University in 1876; Imes was the first African American in the 20th century to gain this degree.[3]

Around 1919, after moving to New York to work in industry, Imes married Nella Larsen, a nurse who became a writer. An American of Danish and Afro-Caribbean descent, she is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance, having published short stories and two novels in the late 1920s. The couple had moved from Jersey City, New Jersey, to Harlem, where they became part of the professional and cultural society that included artists and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, members of the black elite.[3]

Due to strains in their marriage, they divorced in 1933. Imes had returned to Fisk University in 1929 for an academic career, developing and leading its physics department.

Internationally renowned physicistEdit

Imes’ research and doctoral thesis led to his publication of Measurements on the Near-Infrared Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases in November 1919 in the Astrophysical Journal.[4] This work was followed by a paper co-authored and presented in November 1919 jointly with Harrison M. Randall, "The Fine Structure of the Near Infra-Red Absorption Bands of HCI, HBr, and HF" at the American Physical Society; it was published in the Physical Review in February 1920.[2][5] This work demonstrated for the first time that Quantum Theory could be applied to radiation in all regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, to the rotational energy states of molecules, as well as the vibration and electronic levels. Imes' work provided an early verification of Quantum Theory.[3][1][6] It became known in Europe as well as in the United States.[1]

Imes' work was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules. This led to development of the field of study of molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy.[3][1][6]

Professional lifeEdit

In the early 1920s, Imes found difficulty in securing employment in academia. Not many black colleges had physics programs and white colleges did not hire him. As a result, he became a physics consultant and researcher after completing his doctorate; he worked in physics at the Federal Engineers Development Corporation in 1918[1] and with the Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation in 1922. In 1927, Imes went to work as a research engineer at E.A. Everett Signal Supplies.[3][6] During the decade that Imes worked in the scientific and materials industry, his research resulted in four patents for instruments that were used for measuring magnetic and electric properties.[3]

In 1930, Imes returned to Fisk University, where he served as Chair of the Physics Department. Imes is credited with the academic development of the physics programs at Fisk. Many of his students went on to obtain doctoral degrees from highly ranked schools such as the University of Michigan. While at Fisk, Imes developed a course in Cultural Physics, to teach students about the history of science. In 1931, Imes was named one of the thirteen most gifted Black Americans.[2]

In 1939, Imes returned to New York, where he conducted research as a scholar in magnetic materials at the Physics Department at New York University. He died in 1941.

Memberships & honorsEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e Ronald E. Mickens, "Bouchet and Imes: First Black Physicists", The African American Presence in Physics, Ronald E. Mickens, editor. Atlanta, Georgia: 1999, pp. 24-27
  2. ^ a b c d e "Biography: Elmer Samuel Imes", Retrieved on 2010-06-10.
  3. ^ a b c d e f This Month in Physics History - "November 1919: Elmer Imes Publishes Work on Infrared Spectroscopy", APS News (American Physics Society), November 2008 (Volume 17, Number 10). Retrieved on 2010-06-22
  4. ^ Elmer S. Imes, "Measurements on the Near-Infrared Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases", Astrophysical Journal, November 1919, vol. 50, p.251ff
  5. ^ H.M. Randall and E.S. Imes, "The Fine Structure of the Near Infra-Red Absorption Bands of HCI, HBr, and HF", Phys. Rev. 15, pp. 152-155, Feb. 1920; in Science Abstracts, Institution of Electrical Engineers., 1920, pp.342-343
  6. ^ a b c Dr. Scott Williams, "Physicists of the African Diaspora: Elmer Samuel Imes", hosted at University of Buffalo, Retrieved on 2010-06-10.

Further readingEdit

  • Davenport, James C. (1 February 1999). "The National Society of Black Physicists: Reflections on its Beginning". In Mickens, Ronald E. (ed.). The African American Presence in Physics. Atlanta, Georgia: Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library. pp. 6–12. doi:10.22595/caupubs.00010.
  • Gary D. Krentz, "Physics at Michigan: from Classical Physics to Nuclear Research: 1888 - 1938", LSA Magazine (University of Michigan) 12 (Fall 1988), pp. 10–16.
  • Julia B. Morgan, "Son of a Slave," Johns Hopkins Magazine, June 1981, pp. 20–26.
  • The Negro in Science, Julius Taylor, editor. Baltimore, MD: Morgan State College Press, 1955.
  • Willie Pearson, Jr., Black Scientists, White Society, and Colorless Science: A Study of Universalism in American Science, Millwood, NY: Associated Faculty Press, 1985