Becoming a chemist may not be many women’s childhood dream, but it was Jeannette Elizabeth Brown’s. Inspired by her family doctor, at 5 years old Ms. Brown decided to study science. Her goal was to help others using scientific knowledge, like her doctor did.
It was 1939. The year was marked as the beginning of Ms. Brown’s lifelong dedication to helping others through research and education.
A Budding Chemist
Ms. Brown was born in Bronx, New Year, in 1934. The time was not ideal for African American females like her to study science. But Ms. Brown’s parents supported their only child the best they could. To provide for his family, Ms. Brown’s father, Freddie Brown, worked multiple jobs. And the family moved from place to place as his job changed. When Ms. Brown was 5, her father got a superintendent job at a residential building in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. It was in that building that Ms. Brown met Doctor Arthur Logan, the doctor who later inspired and encouraged her to study science.
In middle and high school, Ms. Brown excelled at all science subjects, especially chemistry. In New Dorp High School in Staten Island, where her family eventually ended up living, she scored 98 out of 100 on the New York State Regents chemistry exam. When she graduated from high school in 1952, her school placed her name on its permanent honor roll.
After high school, Ms. Brown continued studying chemistry in college and graduate school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry field in 1956 from Hunter College in New York and a master’s degree in organic chemistry in 1958 from the University of Minnesota. She was the first African American woman who received a degree in chemistry from the University.
Armed with her solid scientific education, Ms. Brown embarked on multiple careers in the following decades, all with the same goal of making a positive difference to the world using her scientific knowledge but with growing impact.
Making Lifesaving Compounds
Lacking money needed to attend medical school, Ms. Brown pursued a career in the pharmaceutical industry, first at CIBA Pharmaceuticals (now Novartis) and then Merck. Instead of treating patients as she originally planned, she synthesized novel medicinal compounds. During those years, Ms. Brown worked on multiple research projects and synthesized and purified scores of novel compounds. One of the lifesaving compounds she helped make was Cilastatin Sodium, a component of the widely used antibiotic Primaxin. At Merck, she coauthored 15 publications, contributed to 5 patents, and obtained one patent of her own.
To succeed in the industry, Ms. Brown believes one needs
- ● Solid scientific knowledge,
- ● Strong teamwork skills,
- ● Effective communication skills, and
- ● Continuing education to keep up with advancements in the field.
Mentoring Chemistry Teachers
Helping others is in Ms. Brown’s blood. At Merck, when not synthesizing and purifying compounds, Ms. Brown worked on various committees, helping black universities improve their chemistry education and research, and mentoring students along the way.
After having successfully worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 36 years, Ms. Brown switched her career from research to education to make a bigger impact. This time, she decided to mentor middle- and high-school chemistry teachers, and she chose the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) as her home base. At NJIT, Ms. Brown designed, developed, and coordinated multiple statewide programs, including a National Science Foundation Statewide Systemic Initiative designed to improve teaching and learning for science and math. She also helped secure a grant from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. With the grant, she and her colleagues provided numerous workshops to middle- and high-school chemistry teachers.
Inspiring a Broad Audience
In 2002, Ms. Brown retired from NJIT, only to tackle an even more challenging task. As an African American chemist, Ms. Brown understands the challenges facing minority women scientists like her. She admires those African American women chemists who have succeeded against all odds. She considers them her role models and she wants to share their stories through books.
However, many people, including some colleagues, doubted her because so little information about those pioneer chemists was available. But with the support of Chemical Heritage Foundation, Ms. Brown dug out enough information and finished her book after several years of hard work. In 2008, Oxford University Press published her book titled “African American Women Chemists.” The book immediately received positive reviews from a broad audience and has sold hundreds of copies thus far.
Ms. Brown attributes her success to perseverance. Her colleagues agree. “Determined, determined, and determined” are indeed the words Sharon Neal, chemistry professor at Delaware University, uses to describe Ms. Brown.
Ms. Brown will turn 81 this year. But she is yet ready to slow down. Will she ever stop working? Not a chance. “I think working hard and learning new things keep you young,” she declares. Ms. Brown is currently working on the second edition of her book, and she continues mentoring middle- and high-school students through the Freddie and Ada Brown Award, which she established in 2010 to honor her parents.
Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.
Photo Credit: Olivia Holmes Photography, Hillsborough, NJ