Carolyn Beatrice Parker

By Peggy Macdonald

Physicist, educator (Gainesville)

Years: 1917–1966

Remembered for: The first Black woman to earn a graduate degree in physics; recruited to work on the Dayton Project, a division of the Manhattan Project.

Why you should know her:

Carolyn Beatrice Parker’s father, Dr. Julius A. Parker was among the first Black physicians in Gainesville. In 1918, when the influenza pandemic struck, Dr. Parker was on the frontlines treating patients while his wife, Delia M. Parker, cared for baby Carolyn at their home in the Pleasant Street neighborhood, established by freed men and women during Reconstruction.

In 1938, Carolyn Parker graduated magna cum laude from Fisk University. In 1941, she completed her first master’s in physics at the University of Michigan, becoming the first African American woman known to complete a graduate degree in physics. In 1943, Carolyn started a position as a research physicist at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio as part of the Dayton Project, a division of the Manhattan Project. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, scientists involved with the Dayton Project worked with the highly radioactive element Polonium (Po-210), which was separated and purified to be used as the initiator for atomic bombs.

Parker was later hired as an assistant professor of physics at Fisk University. In 1953, she completed a second master’s degree in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Parker finished coursework for a doctorate in physics at MIT but did not complete the process of defending her dissertation. She developed multiple sclerosis and leukemia, which was likely caused by her top-secret research with Polonium. In 1966, Parker died at age 48. A Gainesville elementary school named for Confederate brigadier general Jesse Johnson Finley during the Jim Crow era was recently renamed in Carolyn Beatrice Parker’s honor.

Featured imageCarolyn Beatrice Parker