Edward Alexander Bouchet
An essay authored by Curtis L. Patton,
Professor Emeritus, Epidemiology and Public Health, Yale University
About the author:
Born in 1935 in Birmingham, Alabama, Curtis L. Patton earned his bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Fisk University in 1956. In the same year, he joined the United States Army and served three years in the Medical Corp. After honorable discharge, Patton entered Michigan State University where he earned M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Microbiology. After earning his doctorate in 1966, Patton was recruited to The Rockefeller University and was appointed Investigator and Fellow in 1967, supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Patton joined the Yale University Faculty in 1970 as assistant professor of Microbiology and rose through the ranks to full professor with appointments in Public Health, the School of Medicine and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Patton retired after 36 years at Yale University in 2006. Dr. Patton has been a prominent figure not only at YSPH but throughout Yale University. He has served in a variety of administrative capacities including Division Head, Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases and Acting Head of Global Health. In 2004, Dr. Patton received the Yale Edward A. Bouchet Leadership Award and was asked by the 22nd president of Yale University to help re-establish and Chair the University Minority Affairs Committee (MAC). He has also served as the Director of International Medical Studies and Chair of the Committee on International Health.
In January 2013, an Endowment Agreement between Michigan State University and Dr. Patton resulted in the establishment of The Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Award. Dr. Patton has been long committed to Bouchet’s legacy. He recalls that he was first introduced to Bouchet’s monumental accomplishments in 1952, when he was a freshman at Fisk University by Mathematics Professor Lee Porch. The intention of this award is to “honor the great example of Edward A. Bouchet by enhancing financial support for Ph.D. students at MSU who demonstrate the kind of academic achievement, intellectual and emotional courage that Bouchet exhibited.”
Edward Alexander Bouchet
Physics: B.A., Ph.D. 1876
The Connecticut State Legislature passed the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1784. This act held that children of enslaved blacks were to be freed by their 25th birthday. The state banned the sale of slaves four years later and required owners to register all children born into slavery; however, it was not until 1848 that the state finally outlawed the holding of all slaves.
Born September 15, 1852 on the colored end of Bradley Street in New Haven, Edward Alexander Bouchet became a man of exceptional intellectual and emotional courage, undaunted by barriers of the day. His father, William Francis Bouchet, according to some, was born in Connecticut in 1817; others report that he arrived in New Haven in 1824 as the body servant to a Yale student from Charlestown, South Carolina. Edward’s mother, Susan Cooley Bouchet, was born in Westport, Connecticut, October 1817, daughter of Asher and Jane Drake Cooley. Edward, the youngest of four surviving children born to William and Susan Bouchet, their only son, attended the Artisan Street Colored School, an ungraded elementary school with about 30 students and one teacher. He was enrolled in the New Haven High School for two years before entering Hopkins Grammar School (now Hopkins School) in 1868. Hopkins, a prestigious private school in New Haven, is devoted exclusively to college preparation. The course of study in this very academically oriented secondary school in the nineteenth century was three to five years based on the age and intellectual level of the student. To enter at an advanced level, Bouchet had to pass examinations in courses completed by his class. During his time at Hopkins, he studied the classics, Latin, Greek and Greek history, geometry and algebra, and graduated valedictorian in 1870.
Bouchet entered Yale College in the fall of 1870 but lived at home. He was not engaged in campus extracurricular activities but worked as a sexton for the Temple Street Congregational Church (Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ). During his senior year, he was contacted by Alfred Cope. Cope was a member of the Board of Managers for the Society of Friends Institute for Colored Youth, a prestigious private high school in Philadelphia. Ebenezer D.C. Bassett of Connecticut was principal of the Society of Friends Institute for Colored Youth until he was appointed by President Grant in 1869 to be the first African American Diplomat, Minister, resident and consul-general of the United States to the Republic of Haiti. Cope offered Bouchet a faculty position at the Institute but recommended that he remain at Yale and pursue graduate studies in physics. Bouchet accepted Cope’s offer and recommendation under the conditions that he provide financial support for his graduate studies at Yale and a guarantee of a $1,500 starting salary per annum at the Institute. Cope agreed to both.
Concentrating in physics and mathematics, Bouchet completed his undergraduate studies in 1874, with orations (highest honors or summa cum laude), class rank of six and election to Phi Beta Kappa. He enrolled immediately into graduate studies at Yale. He finished his required courses, passed his language and comprehensive examinations, completed his doctoral thesis research in experimental physics, and wrote his dissertation on Measuring Refractive Indices in two years. A bit short of his 24th birthday, he had earned from Yale a Ph.D. in Physics. By 1876 when perhaps as many as half the citizens in America were able to read and write, Bouchet had become the first self-identified African American to graduate from Yale College, the first admitted to Phi Beta Kappa but not initiated (George W. Henderson who graduated from the University of Vermont in 1877 was the first African American initiated), the first to earn the Ph.D. in any discipline from an American university, and the sixth person ever to earn the Ph.D. in physics in the western hemisphere. Bouchet, the graduate scientist, joined the faculty at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, a high school, without benefit of laboratory, library, graduate students, and scientific collaborators. He taught mathematics, physics, and chemistry for twenty-six years with confidence, elegance, and enthusiasm. During his time in Philadelphia Bouchet presented public lectures in science; he was a member and warden of St. Thomas, the first African American Episcopal Church in the nation; he was among the earliest members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and the Franklin Institute; and as a faithful member of the Philadelphia Yale Alumni Association, he was cordially and respectfully received at meetings and dinners. In disagreement with the Institute's administration over the value of a classical liberal arts education versus a practical one for African Americans, he was made redundant and departed from the Institute and Philadelphia. Bouchet was never called to the new graduate department of physics at Harvard; nor was he called to the fledgling graduate program at Johns Hopkins; nor was he called to Yale, the nation’s first Ph.D. granting university. The record shows that he sought a faculty position at Yale, Hampton and Tuskegee among others, but to no avail. For his twenty-fifth reunion he wrote:
I have endeavored to discharge my duty as teacher to those coming under my care, and have aimed to be a good citizen, and to exemplify in my life the mottos of our Alma Mater . . . From November 1903, until May 1904, I was business manager for the Provident Hospital, a private institution located in St. Louis, MO. From May 1904 until March 1905, I was United States Inspector of Customs at the Louisiana Purchase exposition in St. Louis, stationed at Ceylon Court . . . In October 1906, I became director of Academics at the St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, located at Lawrenceville, VA., where I remained until June 1908, and in September 1908, I accepted the position of principal of the Lincoln High School at Gallipolis, Ohio.
Bouchet remained in Gallipolis for four or five years when poor health forced his return to New Haven. After recuperation, he went to Bishop College in Marshall, Texas around 1914, but returned to New Haven again for health reasons in 1916.
Following a life devoted to teaching and good works, he died October 28, 1918. His funeral was at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and he was buried in an unmarked grave in the family plot in New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery. A black granite headstone on which Bouchet’s image and achievements have been etched was unveiled with ceremony on October 18, 1998 by the Reverend Dr. Victor A. Rogers, then Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the former Dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Susan Hockfield, who is the former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, former Dean of Undergraduate Education at Yale, Joseph Gordon, former Headmaster of Hopkins, Thomas Rodd, Jr., the former New Haven Superintendent of Education, Dr. Reginald Mayo, Yale Chief Research Archivist, Judith Schiff, and Professor Emeritus Curtis L. Patton.
We may never know the specifics of his suppression. Few documents give clues to his thoughts or ambitions as the first African American graduate scientist. We do know that he lived during a period that was terrible for Black people, a period of great challenge. Edward A. Bouchet entered Yale with the prestige of having been valedictorian at Hopkins, and beginning with matriculation to the end, as he went back and forth between Yale and the Colored end of Bradley Street, Philadelphia to St. Louis, Virginia, Ohio, Texas and back to Bradley Street, he ranked among outstanding men, one who demonstrated fine intellect, great energy, and the courage of his convictions. In all his associations, at Yale and in later life, he showed himself a thorough gentleman in the best sense of the term. Prestigious fellowships, prizes and awards have been named in his honor as well as an International Conference on Physics and Technology. His life remains an influence for good at his alma maters, Hopkins and Yale, the city, state, and nation where he was born, the institutions where he taught. For the good progress in education and graduate scholarship, he is memorialized by (1) the Edward A. Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Yale, (2) the Promising Scholars Fund – Edward A. Bouchet Scholarship, established by Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity, Beta Tau Boulé of New Haven, Connecticut (3) the Yale Bouchet Leadership Award medal, a national award given to leaders who have played critical roles in diversifying higher education, (4) the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute, (5) the American Physical Society (APS) Bouchet Award, (6) the Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, and (7) the Bouchet Academy in Chicago, Illinois (previously The Bryn Mawr Elementary School) where First Lady Michelle Obama, nee Robinson attended school. The original Bouchet portrait hangs in the Yale Sterling Memorial Library transept and in facsimiles at Hopkins School (New Haven), Howard University, and in corridors and offices of schools in New Haven, Connecticut and across America. His name, chiseled in granite above the archway leading from Yale’s Saybrook College courtyard to the Dean’s office, was unveiled by Peter Salovey, then Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, now President, and by the former Dean of Yale College, Mary E. Miller, then Master of Saybrook College.