Elmer Imes, pioneering African American Physicist

In March of 2004, the Physics Department hosted  From Imes to Moore at the University of Michigan,  a symposium that honored pioneering African Americans in physics.. The keynote address was given by John Marburger III, science advisor to the president of the United States and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The symposium honored two prominent U-M alumni:

Willie Hobbs Moore (1934-1994) was the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in physics. Her thesis research,completed at Michigan in 1972 under the direction of Samuel Krimm, solved important problems in the vibrational analysis of macromolecules. After receiving her doctorate, she continued research on the spectral analysis of proteins.

Elmer Samuel Imes (1883-1941)  was the second African-American to earn a Ph. D. in Physics (the first was Edward Bouchet, Yale PhD 1878).  Imes, who  completed his PhD  at Michigan in 1918 under the direction of Harrison Randall, is among the first African American scientists to make important contributions to modern physics

Born in 1883 in Memphis, Tennessee, Imes went to grammar school in Oberlin, Ohio where his father had graduated from college. He went to high school in Norman, Alabama and earned his Bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1903. Upon graduating from Fisk, Imes taught mathematics and physics at Georgia Normal and Agricultural Institute in Albany, Georgia and at the Emerson Institute in Mobile, Alabama. Seeking challenge, Imes returned to Fisk in 1913 as a Master’s degree student and as an instructor of science and mathematics. The experience there gave him an ambition to do forefront research and so he decided to enroll as a graduate student in physics at the University of Michigan.

By 1914 Michigan had established itself as a world center for infrared spectroscopy.
Imes doctoral dissertation, directed by Randall, was a measurement and analysis of the near-infrared spectrum of the hydrogen halides (HF, HCl and HBr). Imes was the sole author of the first paper (Astrophysical Journal,1919) that gives an elegant description of experimental method and a clear interpretation of results. This was soon followed by a second paper, co-authored by Randall, in which further details were given. It is notable that Imes completed his entire Michigan doctoral program in four years, a fast pace by any standard.

After finishing his doctoral degree, Imes married Nella Larsen, trained as a nurse but who would later win recognition for her writing. They soon moved to New York City and moved among intellectuals who were forming the Harlem Renaissance. Imes worked successfully as an engineering scientist for several companies in the New York area during the 1920’s. But satisfactions were lacking and his marriage was unraveling so he was glad when, in 1929, an offer from Fisk made it possible for him to return to Nashville. Imes chaired the Fisk physics department and built it into a strong, respected program that sent many students to the University of Michigan and other major research institutions. Imes died in 1941, age 58. As a scientific leader at Fisk, Imes had followed the example of his mentor Harrison Randall in transforming an ordinary physics department into one of national significance.
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A video (from criticalpast.com) of Imes at work in his Fisk laboratory is at http://tinyurl.com/7q7o65b

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