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McBay, Henry C.(1914–1995) - Scientist, chemist, Graduates from Wiley College and Atlanta University, Chronology, Works at Morehouse College

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Henry C. McBay was born in 1914 in Mexia, Texas, to Roberta Ransom and William Cecil McBay. His parents only had seventh-grade educations, but they had high expectations with regard to education for their children. Henry was the second of five children and all of them eventually received college degrees. His father began as a barber, and through self-study and the help of a local undertaker he passed the Texas state examination for licensed embalmers. He then opened a funeral home with an older brother. The following year he started a drugstore with a younger brother.

The discovery of oil under the city of Mexia in the early decades of the twentieth century made the town wealthy enough to provide an excellent high school education for African American students. In particular, the high school had outstanding teachers in the areas of science and mathematics, subjects in which Henry McBay excelled. Henry also took advantage of the well coached football team and, as quarterback, led the team to a championship in the school’s regional conference tournament.

Graduates from Wiley College and Atlanta University

After graduating from the Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School at the age of sixteen, Henry entered Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. During his study at Wiley, he worked part-time, for the first two years in the dining hall, and for the last two years at the college post office. McBay had excellent teachers in the subjects that interested him most: science and mathematics. During many courses with these teachers, he became aware of organic chemistry and the possibilities associated with having a career in this area. He quickly realized that to do so required additional education.

After graduating from Wiley College in 1934, with highest academic honors, McBay entered the graduate chemistry program at Atlanta University. There he worked under Kimuel A. Huggins on a research project concerned with creating new forms of plastics having properties similar to those of natural rubber. In 1936, McBay completed the requirements for the master’s degree; that same year Professor Huggins received his doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago.

During the next several years, McBay taught at Wiley College (1936–38); Western University (1938–39) in Quindaro, Kansas; and as a high school teacher in Huntsville, Alabama (1939–40). The primary reason for not continuing his graduate education was lack of funds. Another restriction was that his parents expected his help in financing the college expenses of his younger brother and sister. However, in 1939, he enrolled at the University of Chicago as a summer student and took a course taught by the chairman of the chemistry department. McBay was one of the outstanding students in the course.

From 1941 to 1942, McBay was invited to work on a research team at the Carver Foundation of Tuskegee Institute, which was searching for a substitute material for the fiber obtained from jute, a plant native to India, but now in short supply because of the outbreak of World War II. The team focused on okra as a possible replacement. However, after a year of work, the idea was abandoned and McBay’s position there ended in 1942.

McBay wrote to the University of Chicago and requested admittance to the graduate program in chemistry as a full time doctoral student. Although their response was noncommittal, he appeared on campus in September 1942 and was given the positionof departmental assistant. This job was essentially reserved for racial minorities since it prevented blacks from having direct authority over white students. However, several advantages did accrue with the position: it carried a stipend, allowed experience to be obtained in various laboratory techniques, and provided a military draft deferment.

McBay began his doctoral research work in 1944 under Morris Kharasch. McBay had the necessary laboratory skills for handling dangerous chemical compounds. His selected research involved extremely volatile materials, and for this work he was placed in a private laboratory. McBay’s outstanding work on this assignment earned him the Elizabeth Norton Prize for Excellence in Chemical Research in both 1944 and 1945. Based on this research, he was awarded the doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1945.



Born in Mexia, Texas on May 29


Receives B.A. from Wiley College


Receives M.A. from Atlanta University


Teaches at Wiley College


Teaches at junior college in Quinduro, Kansas


High school teacher in Huntsville, Texas


Joins research team at Tuskegee Institute


Begins full time graduate enrollment at the University of Chicago


Receives Ph.D. from University of Chicago; joins faculty at Morehouse College


Appointed technical expert on science education to the Republic of Liberia by UNESCO


Visiting research professor at the University of Minneapolis


Visiting research scientist at the National Research Council, Ottawa, Canada


Serves as member of the executive committee of the Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society


Serves on board of trustees of Morehouse College


Retires from Morehouse College


Joins faculty of Atlanta University as Fuller E. Callaway professor of chemistry


Emeritus professor of chemistry at Atlanta University/Clark Atlanta University


Serves as co-director, PRISM-D Program at Clark Atlanta University


Serves on board of trustees at Morehouse College


Dies in Atlanta, Georgia on June 23

Works at Morehouse College

After receiving his doctorate in chemistry, McBay accepted in 1945 a position as assistant professor in the chemistry department at Morehouse College. During his thirty-six year tenure at the college, he rose through the academic ranks to ultimately become the David Packard professor of chemistry. For twenty-five years, he served as chair of the department. However, his most significant contributions to education at Morehouse College were to instill in all his students a love for chemistry and an awareness of the important role that mathematics plays in the sciences, and to provide fundamental scientific training so that they could successfully complete doctoral studies at the major research universities. More than fifty of McBay’s students went on to earn a Ph.D. or M.D. Until 1995, he had educated more African Americans who attained the Ph.D. in chemistry than any other teacher in the country.

In both his classroom management and teaching style, McBay was rigorous and rigid. No excuses were acceptable to him for not being prepared for classroom work. He openly intimidated students who did not live up to his academic standards but was always open to those who were prepared and rose to his challenge. His legacy was felt among both chemistry majors and students who took him for the basic courses and then went on to major in other areas.

In 1981, McBay retired from Morehouse College after thirty-six years of teaching, mentoring, and service to the college. The following year, he accepted an appointment as Distinguished Fuller E. Callaway professor in the chemistry department at Atlanta University. In 1986, he became professor emeritus of chemistry at Atlanta University, and in 1988 he was honored by the Morehouse College Board of Trustees with the title distinguished professor of chemistry.

The Atlanta University and Clark College consolidated in 1990 to form Clark Atlanta University (CAU). This super-university would permit increased research opportunities for interested faculty and students and allow a huge savings in administrative costs by employing fewer staff and other non-academic personnel. In 1990, McBay was invited to join a new program set up at CAU whose purpose was to help increase the number of African Americans earning the Ph.D. in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences. Accepting this offer, he served asco-director of PRISM-D (Program for Research Integration and Support for Matriculation to the Doctorate) from 1990 to 1995. His guidance and educational philosophy helped make the program a huge success.

At CAU McBay had a large laboratory for his research. With financial help from several former students, he was able to equip his laboratory and obtain the services of graduate students to assist in his research activities. One of his last major efforts was devoted to a theoretical and experimental investigation of how chiral-ity arose in the molecular processes involved in the formation of life on the earth.

Receives Honors, Leaves Legacy

Henry C. McBay had a long and distinguished career in administration, teaching, mentoring, and research. His efforts in all four areas have been amply recognized. These honors include the Elizabeth Norton Prize for Excellence in Research in Chemistry, University of Chicago, 1944 and 1945; election to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, 1944; elected, Foundation Member of Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Morehouse College, 1968; and the Charles H. Herty Award for Outstanding Contribution to Chemistry, Georgia Section of the American Chemical Society, 1976. McBay received three honorary doctorates: Atlanta University, 1987; Emory University, 1992; and, Bowie State University, 1993. In 1994, the United Negro College Fund announced the establishment of the Henry C. McBay Research Fellowships to be held by faculty members of United Negro College Fund (UNCF) institutions. McBay Fellows may conduct research in any field of their choosing as described in their research proposal.

One of the most touching events in McBay’s list of honors was his selection to be the first Martin Luther King Jr. visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1991. There, friends, colleagues, and thirty-five former students gathered to honor him in a two-day celebration featuring interviews by the press, a symposium of scientific presentations, a luncheon hosted by the MIT provost, a testimonial session, and a celebratory banquet attended by the MIT president and the United States secretary of health and human services, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, a former McBay student.

McBay’s legacy includes his dedication to students, his firmness of beliefs, his love of teaching, his contributions to organic chemistry, and his lifelong relations with family, friends, colleagues, and former students. However, his most significant legacy rests with the hundreds of students that he influenced to pursue distinguished careers in teaching, scholarship, administration, and scientific research.

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