It is simply amazing that the son of a former slave can achieve such acclaim as Edward Alexander Bouchet. Born Sept. 15, 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut, Edward acquired the seeds of education despite being raised in a community where there was a scarcity of schools for him and his race.
As a student at the Artisan Street Colored School, where there was only one teacher, Edward excelled, a fact attributed to his teacher’s dedication and recognition of his native intelligence and abilities. Later, he attended the New Haven High School from 1866 to 1868 and then Hopkins Grammar School from 1868 to 1870, earning the distinction as the valedictorian of his class. His grades in Latin, Greek, history, and mathematics were exceptional. He was equally successful academically at Yale, graduating sixth in his class and the first African American to do so from Yale, though this distinction has been questioned.
In 1876, at Yale where his father was a porter, he completed his dissertation in physics, entitled “Measuring Refractive Indices,”* becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. His outstanding academic record was enough to earn him election to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. It would take a decade before Bouchet and the other inductees could actually celebrate the honor since the Yale chapter had to complete reorganizing after more than twelve years of inactivity. Bouchet, however, was not the first African American to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa, that honor belongs to George Washington Henderson at the University of Vermont.
Despite all the honors and achievements, Bouchet could not hurdle the racial barrier and secure a teaching position at a university or college. In 1876, he moved to Philadelphia and began teaching at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania). There he taught chemistry and physics for the next 26 years, eventually resigning in 1902. His teaching career continued over the next year or so at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, where he regaled students with his knowledge of science, preparing them for a college degree. After a short stint here, he served as business manager of the Provident Hospital and U.S. Inspector of Customs at the Louisiana Purchase Expedition from 1904 to 1905. For the next three years, he was the director of academics at St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial in Lawrenceville, Virginia, currently St. Paul’s College. Subsequently, at Lincoln High School in Gallipolis, Ohio, he was both teacher and principal from 1908 to 1913. After that stint, he joined the faculty of Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Three years later in 1916 an illness forced him to retire and necessitated a move back to New Haven. In 1918, at the age of 66, he died where he was born. He never married, had no children, and was a devout Republican.
As part of his legacy and a tribute to his accomplishments, the American Physical Society (APS Physics) annually confers the Edward A. Bouchet Award on some of the nation’s outstanding physicists for their contribution to physics. In 1988, the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute was founded by the late Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, under its founding chairperson Charles Brown. Ten years later, Yale University installed a tombstone to remember him and the school’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences established the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in his name. A leadership award was also given to a student who had excelled both in the classroom and elsewhere. In 2005, Yale and Howard University founded the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in his name.
This paragraph is a poor attempt to explain the complexity of Bouchet’s dissertation. “This investigation will compare methods of measuring the refractive index of a medium and evaluate these experiments accordingly. All three methods measured the refractive index with some degree of accuracy and precision. Method 1 using a concave mirror was the most simple to undertake and produced accurate results (most accurate being 1.32±0.04) for which the given value was within the maximum uncertainty. Method 2 using a travelling microscope was more difficult to carry out but allowed the refractive index of both a liquid and a solid, i.e. glass or Perspex. This method resulted in values lower than the accepted value (1.43±0.12) for glass which shows a systematic error but was still accurate enough for the accepted value to lie within the uncertainties of the experiment. Measuring the refractive index of water was a lot more inconsistent than the glass. Method 3 also can only measure the refractive index of a small volume of liquid, not solid. Although it produced the most accurate results but required custom building of apparatus. The uncertainties were quite large though (1.32±0.09) which shows the experiment could have a lot of error.”