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.