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Prof. Samuel Massie Dies; Broke Naval Academy's Race Barrier

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page B06

Samuel P. Massie Jr., a chemistry professor who was the first African American to teach at the U.S. Naval Academy, died April 10 at Mariner Healthcare Center in Laurel. He was 85 and had dementia.

Dr. Massie considered himself first and foremost a teacher, though he also gained widespread recognition for his work in chemistry. He was named one of the 75 premier chemists of the 20th century, along with Marie Curie, George Washington Carver, Kodak founder George Eastman and DNA researchers James Watson and Francis Crick.


As a chemist, Samuel P. Massie Jr. worked on the Manhattan Project and on health-related studies. (Family Photo)

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As a young man studying for his doctoral degree, Dr. Massie worked on the Manhattan Project with scientists making liquid compounds of uranium for the atomic bomb. He conducted pioneering silicon chemistry research and investigated antibacterial agents. With two midshipmen and colleagues from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he was awarded a patent for chemical agents effective in battling gonorrhea.

He received awards for research in combating malaria and meningitis, worked on drugs to fight herpes and cancer and developed protective foams against nerve gases.

Dr. Massie, a former professor at several historically black colleges who lectured on campuses nationwide, also received recognition for encouraging African American and other minority students to pursue science careers.

"Many people, some of them teachers, who unconsciously make science and mathematics too difficult feel that science and mathematics are not for the common student," he once said. "They are wrong. The depth of use may vary, but the principles remain understandable to all of us."

Samuel Proctor Massie Jr. was born in North Little Rock, Ark., the son of two schoolteachers. He read at a third-grade level by the time he entered first grade, skipped several grades and graduated from high school at 13.

Because of his age and family finances, he worked in a grocery store for a year before enrolling in Dunbar Junior College in Little Rock. After graduating, he wanted to attend the University of Arkansas, but the doors were closed to black students.

He did not allow the barefaced segregation of the day to impose limits on him. Interested in finding a cure for his father's asthma, he graduated summa cum laude in chemistry from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1936. He received a master's degree in chemistry from Fisk University in 1940, then returned to Arkansas AM&N to teach for a year.

In 1941, Iowa State University accepted him in its doctoral program in organic chemistry but would not allow him to live on campus or use the same science lab as the white students.

"The laboratory for the white boys was on the second floor next to the library," Dr. Massie recounted. "My laboratory was in the basement next to the rats. Separate but equal."

With the outbreak of World War II, he joined a special research team at Iowa State working on the Manhattan Project. In 1946, he received his doctorate.

Afterward, Dr. Massie began his enduring career in academia. He became a chemistry professor at Fisk but left after one year when he was named chairman of the chemistry department at Langston University in Oklahoma. He returned to Fisk in 1953, where one of his students was Marion Barry, who became Washington's mayor.

While at Fisk, he continued his research of phenothiazine, which was used in treating psychiatric disorders and in cancer therapy, and wrote a landmark article on the subject. From 1963 to 1966, Dr. Massie was president of what was then North Carolina College at Durham. President Lyndon B. Johnson then tapped him for a chemistry professorship at the U.S. Naval Academy.


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