Remembering Moddie Taylor, a Black scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project

UChicago alum and chemist won national acclaim for research, teaching

In 1942, Manhattan Project scientists at the University of Chicago achieved the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction—a breakthrough that reshaped the world as we know it. But photographs of those who achieved the landmark scientific work are often mostly of white men.

Not shown are more than a dozen Black scientists who made key contributions to the Manhattan Project and whose stories have often been overlooked. One of them was Moddie Taylor, SM’39, PhD’43, who worked in the Metallurgical Laboratory—the arm of the Manhattan Project based at UChicago—until the end of World War II. An inorganic chemist specializing in rare earth metals, Taylor studied the properties of elements that were of interest to the Met Lab: Plutonium, for example, was used in the first atomic bomb.

Taylor made a significant impact on the field after his time at UChicago. He became the chair of the chemistry department at Howard University, where he served as a professor for nearly 30 years and published numerous papers. Named one of the country’s top chemistry instructors, he also wrote a textbook used by students at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

There must be no prejudice: Black scientists in the atomic age

Taylor invoked the scientific method in a way that also illuminated social considerations. He considered racism and discrimination as being inimical to science, which required a clear, unbiased mind. “Scientific investigation must have absolute freedom,” he said in St. Louis just a few months after the end of World War II.

The Michigan Chronicle, a Black newspaper based in Detroit, paraphrased his remarks as follows: “Nothing must come between the scientist and his field of research. There must be no prejudice; no tradition to perplex him; no vested interest to prevent his exploring every promising avenue he sees.”

Taylor rose to the top of his field despite facing challenges related to race. In Chicago, for example, he struggled for nearly a year to find a suitable home for himself and his wife. This was “a consequence of the extreme housing shortage in Chicago, particularly among [Black residents],” according to a 1944 letter sent from the director’s office at Clinton Laboratories (now Oak Ridge National Lab) to the Met Lab’s personnel director, Wayne W. Johnson.

Black publications often celebrated the work of scientists like Taylor who had contributed to the Manhattan Project, according to historian Vincent Intondi, a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and the author of African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism and the Black Freedom Movement.

At the same time, however, Black writers and activists elsewhere questioned the implications of the development, testing and use of the bomb from the standpoint of race, Intondi said. They asked why so many federal resources were poured into nuclear armament while social inequality received less attention, and whether racism might factor into decisions about when to use the bombs in warfare.

Despite such questions, Black publications praised Taylor and other scientists for their work on the Manhattan Project, Intondi said: “They were described as geniuses of chemistry and physics … and the example of their outstanding work in these areas was used in Black newspapers to ask the question, ‘How can we not be treated as equals?’”

From star student to distinguished chemist

Born in the small town of Nymph, Alabama, in 1912, Taylor later moved to St. Louis, where he attended Sumner High School, a segregated school for Black students named after abolitionist and former U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner. He graduated as his high school’s salutatorian and went on to graduate summa cum laude in 1935 as the top student at Lincoln University, a historically Black university in Jefferson City, Missouri, founded by Black Civil War veterans in 1866.

Taylor then came to UChicago, where he studied with chemists Anton Burg, Herbert Brown and Prof. Hermann Schlesinger. Burg later chaired the chemistry department at the University of Southern California, and Brown became a professor at Purdue University, winning a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1979 for his investigation of boron compounds, a subfield in which he had published with Taylor early in their careers. 

When Taylor eventually published his chemistry textbook First Principles of Chemistry in 1960, he dedicated it to Schlesinger (“who taught me”); his father, Herbert Taylor (“who believed in me”); and his wife Vivian Taylor (“who worked with me”). Vivian is also acknowledged in the textbook for having typed the 688-page manuscript.

Taylor retained an affiliation with Lincoln University during his graduate studies at UChicago, teaching and conducting research on the Jefferson City campus until 1941, when he began to live in Chicago full-time. Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1943, Taylor was re-hired at Lincoln. However, before he had a chance to start in a full-time job at his alma mater, the Metallurgical Laboratory tapped him to work as an associate chemist for two more years.

J.C. Stearns, director of personnel at the Metallurgical Laboratory, even wrote a letter to Lincoln University President Sherman D. Scruggs, thanking him for loaning Taylor’s talent. Published in the Lincoln Clarion student newspaper in October 1943, the letter reads today as a prescient—and perhaps indiscreet—description of the Manhattan Project.

“This project has under way a research and development program which all of us believe will be very instrumental in bringing this war to an early close,” Stearns wrote. “We also believe that scientific discoveries made at this laboratory are going to be as fully significant in the post-war era as were the discoveries of X-ray and radioactivity.”

Stearns’ words certainly came true: The bomb brought science into the public consciousness as few things had before.

Manhattan Project legacy

In the postwar era, Taylor was recognized as a leading Black chemist, receiving many awards and memberships in distinguished professional associations—including a certificate of merit from Secretary of War Robert Patterson and a fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1965, amid a push by President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint more Black lawyers and intellectuals to federal posts, Taylor was named to the U.S. Assay Commission, a former entity of the federal government tasked with ensuring that the nation’s metal currency met precise specifications.

Taylor died in 1976 at age 64. Though he is not a household name, he is recognized—along with UChicago alum J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. and others—by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Atomic Heritage Foundation as a significant figure in the history of the Manhattan Project. UChicago honored Wilkins, SB’40, SM’41, PhD’42—a brilliant mathematician and physicist—with a portrait and plaque in Eckhart Hall in 2007.

Upon Taylor’s return to Lincoln University, two months after the war ended in 1945 (and before he left for Howard in 1948), an op-ed in the Lincoln Clarion set the tone for his legacy.

“Lincoln is justly proud of you and your contribution [to] the atomic bomb,” it read. “If not historically recorded, your name shall become legendary to our posterity.”

—This story was made possible by contributions from Lincoln University library assistant Ithaca Bryant and Howard University archivist Sonja Woods at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, who provided files that revealed more about Taylor’s life.