Edward Bouchet

February 1, 2020

The National Society of Black Physicists honors Dr. Edward Bouchet. Dr. Bouchet was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in physics from any American University. He has established a legacy of excellence for all African American physicists.

Edward Alexander Bouchet Yale College class of 1874Edward Alexander Bouchet (September 15, 1852 – October 28, 1918) was an African American physicist and educator and was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from any American university, completing his dissertation in physics at Yale in 1876. While completing his studies, Bouchet was also the first African American to be inducted in to Phi Beta Kappa for his stellar academic performance in his undergraduate studies. Bouchet’s original research focused on geometrical optics, and he wrote a dissertation entitled “On Measuring Refractive Indices.”

Unfortunately, after completing his dissertation, Bouchet was unable to find a university teaching position after college, probably because of racial discrimination. Bouchet moved to Philadelphia in 1876 and took a position at the Philadelphia's Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania), where he taught physics and chemistry for the next 26 years. Bouchet spent the next several years in several different teaching positions around the country.  In 1916, Bouchet returned home to New Haven in poor health, and died in 1918 at age 66.

Dr. Bouchet's impact on physics still resonates today around the world. The American Physical Society (APS Physics) confers the Edward A. Bouchet Award on some of the nation's outstanding physicists for their contribution to physics. The Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute was founded in 1988 by the late Nobel Laureate, Professor Abdus Salam under the direction of the founding Chairman Charles S. Brown. In 2005, Yale and Howard University founded the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in his name. 

Dr. Bouchet's Legacy

During his four decades of teaching, Dr. Bouchet educated hundreds of students, many of whom went on to professional careers. As a physicist, Dr. Bouchet's legacy of academic excellence lived on in scientists like Dr. Joseph A. Johnson, III, the second African American to graduate from Yale with a Ph.D. in physics and former president of NSBP. However, Dr. Bouchet's academic legacy went to a whole other level in the fall of 2019 with two African Americans graduating with doctorate degrees in physics from Yale University. On September 10, 2019, Dr. Charles Brown successfully defended his thesis, “Optical, Mechanical and Thermal Properties of Superfluid Liquid Helium Drops Magnetically-Levitated in Vacuum.”  Dr. Brown is an atomic physicist and the sixth African American to complete a doctoral degree from Yale University. Dr. Brown has joined the Stamper-Kurn group at the University of California, Berkeley as a postdoctoral associate, conducting experiments with ultracold atomic gases trapped in optical lattices. On December 6, 2019, Dr. Brooke Russell successfully defended her thesis, “An Electron Neutrino Appearance Search in MicroBooNE with 5 x 1019 POT”. Dr. Russell is an experimental particle physicist, the seventh African American person and the first African-American woman to graduate with a doctorate degree in physics from Yale University. Dr. Russell will join the Neutrino Group in the Physics Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory as an Owen Chamberlain Postdoctoral Fellow, working on 3D pixelated charge readout devices to enable the single-phase LArTPC DUNE Near Detector physics program.