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Henry Cecil McBay

Henry Ransom Cecil McBay (1914-1995) was a chemist and a teacher.

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Birth/Family Background

McBay was born in 1914 in Mexia, Texas. His father was a barber who eventually became an embalmer and funeral director; his mother was a seamstress. Both parents had left school after the seventh grade because there was no high school for African-Americans in Mexia. By the time Henry was in high school, however, oil had been discovered in Mexia and the quality of life of its residents had improved. One result of that improvement was that a high school for African-Americans had opened—and McBay was able to receive a good education.

Early Education and Employment

Because of his proficiency in math, McBay was able to gain admission to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. He paid for his education by working in the college’s dining hall and post office. Inspired by his math and chemistry professors, McBay studied organic chemistry and earned his B.S. degree in 1934. His Wiley professors helped him acquire a scholarship to Atlanta to work on his next degree.

With only $1.65 in his pocket, McBay immediately took a job in the Atlanta University dining hall so he could eat. After only a few days on campus, his faculty advisor, Professor K.A. Huggins, arranged for him to work in the chemistry laboratory.

McBay began to help Huggins study new types of plastics that had properties similar to natural rubber. Soon, McBay was performing his own analysis of the plastics. When the project was finished, McBay received his master’s degree from Atlanta University and Huggins received his doctorate from the University of Chicago. This indirect connection to the University of Chicago would later be important to McBay’s career.

After earning his master’s degree McBay returned to Wiley College so he could help his younger brother and sister pay for college. However, going “home” proved to be a disappointment. Some faculty members still thought of him as their student and never accepted McBay as an academic peer. Because of his devotion to his siblings, however, he remained at Wiley until his brother received his college degree and his parents were able to pay for his sister’s education.

In 1938 McBay took a better-paying teaching job at a Quindaro, Kansas junior college. At the end of the first year, he enrolled in the University of Chicago summer school program, where he received good grades for that term. When he returned to Quindaro, he found that the new junior college principal had, for political reasons, hired an instructor in his place.

McBay then moved to a high school mathematics teaching position in Huntsville, Texas, where he stayed for three semesters. He then joined a newly-formed research team at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama assigned the task of finding a suitable substitute for jute fiber. Indian shipments of jute, which was used for rope and fabrics for sacks, had ended due to World War I.

The Tuskegee team hoped to prove that okra stems would be an effective substitute, but McBay proved that, by the time an okra plant had matured, the stems were too brittle. Okra could be harvested for food or for fiber, but not for both. Ironically, McBay had worked himself out of a job.

Later Education

McBay then accepted a teaching assistant’s position at the University of Chicago and resumed his doctoral studies. This move also kept him out of the U.S. military: the government needed large numbers of chemistry graduates and was not drafting people in those positions. He demonstrated his love of teaching by designing a chemistry course for first-year college course.

In 1944 McBay chose Professor Morris Kharasch as his research advisor. He began to learn very specialized techniques in handling dangerous compounds. McBay began to create highly explosive materials that offered great value as chemical building blocks. He subsequently developed new methods of producing a dangerous compound from hydrogen peroxide. Discoveries by McBay (and Kharasch) allowed chemists around the world to create inexpensive peroxide compounds which are extremely useful as building blocks in many chemical reactions. As a result of that research, McBay received the Elizabeth Norton for excellence in chemical research in 1944 and 1945. His dissertation focused on his hydrogen peroxide project, and in 1945 he received his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago.

McBay then returned to Atlanta as an assistant professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In 1956, he was appointed chairman of the chemistry department. In 1982 he transferred to his old school, Atlanta University, and became the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Chemistry there. McBay would eventually teach for 41 years in the Atlanta University system (Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta).

McBay the Teacher

One of McBay’s main goals was to pass along his love for chemistry to his students. He regularly demonstrated how two materials could be combined to produce something with completely different properties. One of his frequent demonstrations combined a metallic poison, sodium, with a gaseous poison, chlorine, to produce table salt. He wanted his students to share his fascination with such processes, which he believed to be minor miracles.

In 1951, he developed a chemistry education program in Liberia on behalf of the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


  • The National Association for Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers named him Outstanding Teacher in 1976.
  • In 1991 he was appointed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Atlanta’s Emory University granted him an honorary doctorate in 1992.


Brown, Mitchell, “Faces of Science: African-Americans in the Sciences,” 1996. mcbay.html

Kessler, James H., J.S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd, and Katherine A. Morin. Distinguished African-American Scientists of the 20th Century. Oryx Press: Phoenix, AZ, 1996.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Henry_Cecil_McBay". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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