The entire SciAm Blog Network is celebrating International Chemistry Day, and I've decided to share a personal account of a chemist I know, Dr. Rubye Torrey - a radiation/electro analytical chemist, and the very first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Syracuse University in New York. I share a post from my archives at Urban Science Adventures! ©, Letter to my Younger Self: Right Under My nose: Dr. Rubye Torrey, Sister in Science.


I met Dr. Rubye Torrey (yes, with an e) as an undergraduate student at Tennessee Technological University. I had seen in the University Center, walking along the Quad, in the Administration building and at football games. She was the Assistant Vice-President of Research at the University, but that meant nothing to me, although I was studying science and doing research with live animals. At the time I had absolutely no appreciation of research administration, research protocols, policies, animal care (IACUC), review boards ( IRB), or the role of administrators like Dr. Torrey – that would eventually occupy my days and nights as a graduate student. No, I officially met her for the first time on a blustery winter’s evening in 1994. I was attending an interest tea and she was the sorority advisor. She struck me as a very formal woman. She had a sweet face, but I immediately sensed she was no nonsense. I was quite right.

My three years under her tutelage and supervision in Xi Alpha Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., were perhaps like anyone else’s who belonged to one of the Divine 9 organizations. With little exception, undergraduate sorority and fraternity members are adolescents: cocky, self-absorbed, indestructible, know-it-all-kids full of energy and excitement about belonging to a grand sister/brotherhood. We want to conquer it all. The job of these selfless, giving (and no nonsense) advisors is keep droves of crazed, impetuous, souls from running amuck, unintentionally despoiling our sister/brotherhood, and simultaneously prepare us to be responsible citizens who serve mankind – all for free. I cannot say I was better behaved (or appreciated how much a labor of love it is to be a graduate advisor), though my brand of cockiness was a more passive arrogance. I was brat, but I didn’t know it then. But that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t know.

I graduated from college, with a degree in Animal Science. I continue my studies and obtained a Master’s degree in Biology and I later went on to study at the doctorate level. Fast forward to March 2007. I’m sitting in a workshop at the National Science Teachers Association National meeting. I’m sitting next to a lovely woman, who favors my maternal grandmother. We strike up a conversation and I learn she is a Biology professor at Howard University -- Dr. Geraldine Twitty. I am beaming and excited. Never before had I had the opportunity to meet an African-American Woman who was scientist. She asked me about my educational background and schools I have attended. She then asks if I know Dr. Rubye Torrey. I immediately sit up, surprised that anyone else other than my sorority sisters know who DT is (as we called her). Dr. Twitty tells me that she and Dr. Torrey are long time friends, from Sigma Xi conferences of years past.

It hits me. Dr. Torrey is a scientist! It’s not like I didn’t know she wasn’t a PhD in Chemistry. Once she shared a story of her carrying a sulfate chemical on the bus in Nashville – where she was studying for her Master’s. But it just didn’t hit me, until this very moment. I had only known Dr. Torrey as my sorority advisor and not once did I give pause to ask what brought her to us or what academic and professional hurdles did she jump to be in a position to advise us. Not only did I never realize that she was the very first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Syracuse University (in 1963), but she was an upper-level university administrator. As the top science administrator on our campus she had to sign off on my undergraduate research project. Right under my nose, I had access to an African-American Woman Scientist and I never knew. It’s probably because at the time, I didn’t know I’d be where I am today – preparing for an academic career in science, following in the footsteps of Dr. Torrey. Now that I’m on this side of the path, I appreciate her more. She was thorough, effective, and sharp. My sorority sisters and I couldn’t get away with a thing. Nothing. But that’s precisely what makes one a great scientist and a great research administrator. If only I had known then what I now know: science is an endeavor of accuracy and precision. If one is thorough in one facet of life, it’s likely to carry over into others. Dr. Torrey was a consummate professional. It’s a real shame my adolescent stubbornness didn’t allow me to recognize her as the mentor she could have been and how much of an amazing scientists she is. I missed out. I missed out big time.

I learned more about Dr. Torrey, Dr. Twitty, and other women scientists from this amazing book:

by Diann Jordan

Purdue University Press

ISBN 978-1-55753-386-9

It's a perfect book to learn more about the contributions of women to science and engineering

Additional online references to Dr. Torrey:

The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science, AAAS Report 1976.

Her engagement announcement from the Washington Afro-American, July 16, 1957