Edward Bouchet, a great mind


Edward Bouchet
Date: 
Wed, 1852-09-15

*Edward Bouchet was born on this date in 1852. He was an African American educator, physicist and administrator.

From New Haven, Connecticut the youngest and only son of four children, Edward Alexander Bouchet was born to William and Susan (Cooley) Bouchet. His father William Bouchet migrated to New Haven from South Charleston, South Carolina in 1824 for he was the valet of a young plantation owner, the future father of Judge A. Heaton Robinson of New Haven, Connecticut. After his owner graduated, he freed William Bouchet and gave him money to start a business. He became prominent in New Haven's Negro community, serving as deacon of the Temple Street Church, the oldest Negro church in the city, and a stopping point for fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.

During the 1850s and 1860s New Haven had only three schools that Black children could attend. Young Bouchet was enrolled in the Artisan Street Colored School, a small un-graded school with one teacher. In 1866, he attended the New Haven High School. In 1868 Bouchet was accepted into Hopkins Grammar School, a private institution that prepared young men for the classical and scientific departments at Yale College. He graduated first in his class at Hopkins and entered Yale College in 1870. Four years later when he was the first Black to graduate from Yale in 1874, ranked sixth in a class of 124. On the basis of this exceptional performance, Bouchet became the first Black in the nation to be nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, but he was not elected at that time.

Bouchet had the misfortune of being a talented and educated Black man who lived in a segregated society that imposed numerous barriers and thus hindered him from conducting scientific research and achieving professional recognition. Segregation produced isolation as Bouchet spent his career in high schools with limited resources and poorly equipped labs. No white college would have considered him for a position on its faculty even with his superior qualifications. Completely excluded from any means of utilizing his education and talent, Bouchet suffered in obscurity. The ascendancy of industrial education also served to limit his opportunities as his academic training in the natural sciences made him unattractive as a candidate at the increasing number of Black schools that adopted a vocational curriculum.

In the fall of 1874 he returned to Yale with the encouragement and financial support of Alfred Cope, a Philadelphia philanthropist. In 1876 Bouchet successfully completed his dissertation on the new subject of geometrical optics, becoming the first Black person to earn a Ph.D. from an American university as well as the sixth American of any race to earn a Ph.D. in physics. Unlike anyone else in the U. S. who earned a Ph.D. at that time and for the next 80 years, Bouchet was unable to obtain a college (or university) position. So Bouchet moved to Philadelphia to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY).

Although Philadelphia was as segregated as any southern city, it offered a supportive environment for a man of Bouchet's abilities. The city's Black population, the largest in the North, had made considerable progress in education during the decades preceding his arrival. After the Civil War, the ICY played an important role in training the thousands of black teachers that were needed throughout the country to provide freedmen with the education they sought. Bouchet taught chemistry and physics for twenty-six years at ICY, resigning in 1902 when their preparatory program was discontinued "at the height of the Du Bois-Washington controversy over industrial vs. collegiate education." The school was moved and the name was changed in later years to Cheney State College.

Over the next fourteen years, Bouchet held five or six positions in different parts of the county. Until November 1903, he taught math and physics in St. Louis at Sumner High School, the first high school for Blacks west of the Mississippi. He then spent seven months as the business manager for the Provident Hospital in St. Louis followed by a term as a United States inspector of customs at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis. In October 1906, Bouchet secured a teaching and administrative position at St. Paul's Normal and Industrial School (later renamed, St. Paul's College) in Lawrenceville, Virginia.

In 1908 he became principal of Lincoln High School of Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained until 1913, when an attack of arteriosclerosis compelled him to resign and return to New Haven, where he died in his boyhood home at 94 Bradley Street. He had never married or had children. Bouchet's full impact on Black education will never be known; that he had an impact is undeniable. He died, October 28, 1918.

Reference:
Edward Bouchet
The First African-American Doctorate
by Ronald E. Mickens
World Scientific Pub. Copyright 2002
ISBN: 9810249098

To Be a Biophysicist

To become a High School Teacher

Person / name: 

Bouchet, Edward