Elmer Imes

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Elmer Samuel Imes (October 12, 1883 – 1941) born in Memphis, Tennessee, was the second African American to earn a Ph.D. in Physics and the first in the 20th century. He was among the first African-American scientists to make important contributions to modern physics. While working in industry, he gained four patents for instruments to be used for measuring magnetic and electric properties. As an academic, he chaired and developed the department of physics at Fisk University, serving from 1930 to 1941.

Early life and education[edit]

Elmer Imes was born in Memphis, Tennessee to Elizabeth Wallace and Benjamin A. Imes, both of whom were college educated and met at Oberlin College in Ohio. Benjamin earned a divinity degree at Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1880. His father was descended from free people of color in Pennsylvania at the time of the Revolution. His mother was born into slavery; her family moved to Oberlin when she was a child. Imes had two younger brothers: Albert Lovejoy Imes and William Lloyd Imes. The latter became a minister and was later pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in New York City; he held degrees from Fisk, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University.[1]

Imes and his brothers attended grammar school in Oberlin, Ohio. Their parents became missionaries with the American Missionary Association and moved to the South to serve freedmen and their children. Imes completed his high school education at the Agricultural and Mechanical High School in Norman, Alabama. He graduated from Fisk University, a historically black college, in 1903 with a degree in science.[1]

Upon graduating from Fisk, Imes taught mathematics and physics at Georgia Normal and Agricultural Institute in Albany, Georgia (presently Albany State University, a historically black college) and the Emerson Institute in Mobile, Alabama. Imes returned to Fisk in 1913 as an instructor of science and mathematics. During his tenure there, Imes earned a master's degree in science from Fisk University.

He went to the University of Michigan for additional study in physics, earning a Ph.D. in Physics in 1918, having studied under Harrison McAllister Randall. Imes became the second African American to receive a Ph.D. in Physics since Edward Bouchet did so from Yale University in 1876, and the first black in the 20th century to gain this degree.

Around 1919 after moving to New York, Imes married Nella Larsen, a nurse who became a writer. She is considered part of the Harlem Renaissance, having published short stories and two novels in the late 1920s. The couple moved to Harlem from Jersey City, New Jersey, where they became part of the professional and cultural society that included artists and intellectuals such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, members of the black elite.[2] Due to strains in their marriage, they divorced in 1933, after Imes returned to Fisk University for an academic career.

Internationally renowned physicist[edit]

Imes’ research and doctoral thesis led to his publication of Measurements on the Near-Infrared Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases in November 1919 in the Astrophysical Journal. This work was followed by a paper co-authored and presented jointly with Harrison M. Randall, The Fine Structure of the Near Infra-Red Absorption Bands of HCI, HBr, and HF at the American Physical Society and published in the Physical Review in 1920.[1] This work demonstrated for the first time that Quantum Theory could be applied to radiation in all regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, to the rotational energy states of molecules as well as the vibration and electronic levels. His work provided an early verification of Quantum Theory.[2] [3] [4]

His work was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules giving way to the study molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy.[2] [3] [5]

Professional life[edit]

In the early 1920s, Imes found difficulty in securing employment in academia, as not many black colleges had physics programs and white colleges did not hire him. As a result, he became a physics consultant and researcher in physics at the Federal Engineers Development Corporation in 1922 and with the Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation in 1924. In 1927, Imes went to work as a research engineer at E.A. Everett Signal Supplies.[2][3][4] During the period Imes worked in the scientific and materials industry, his research resulted in four patents for instruments which were used for measuring magnetic and electric properties.[2]

In 1930, Imes returned to Fisk University, where he served as Chair of the Physics Department. Imes is credited with the academic development of the physics programs at Fisk. Many of his students went on to obtain doctoral degrees from highly ranked schools such as the University of Michigan. While at Fisk, Imes developed a course in Cultural Physics, to teach students about the history of science. In 1931, Imes was named one of the thirteen most gifted Black Americans.[1]

In 1939, he returned to New York, conducting research as a scholar in magnetic materials at the Physics Department at New York University. He died in 1941.

Memberships & honors[edit]

Sigma Xi National Honor Society; The American Physical Society; The American Society for Testing Materials; and The American Institute of Electrical Engineers.


  1. ^ a b c d e Biography Elmer Samuel Imes Biography from Answers.com. Retrieved on 2010-06-10.
  2. ^ a b c d e November 1919: Elmer Imes Publishes Work on Infrared Spectroscopy, American Physical Society. Retrieved on 2010-06-22
  3. ^ a b c Dr. Scott Williams, Physicists of the African Diaspora: Elmer Samuel Imes, hosted at University of Buffalo, Retrieved on 2010-06-10.
  4. ^ a b "Elmer Imes", National Society of Black Physicists. Retrieved on 2010-06-10.
  5. ^ Elmer Imes National Society of Black Physicists. Retrieved on 2010-06-10.