African-American Pioneers in Science

Elmer Samuel Imes (1883 - 1941)

Elmer Samuel Imes Photo
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Memphis Tennessee


B.A and M.A. Science, Fisk University
Ph.D. Physics, University of Michigan

  • Elmer Samuel Imes
  • African-American pioneer in physics
  • Second African-American to earn Ph.D. in physics (1918)
  • Became internationally recognized expert in infrared spectroscopy

Physicist Elmer Samuel Imes was born on October 12, 1883 in Memphis, Tennessee. His father, Benjamin, was a minister and mother, Elizabeth, was a homemaker. Both parents were college educated, with his father having graduated from Oberlin College. His family lived in and he went to school in several towns in Ohio and Alabama before he graduated from the Agricultural and Mechanical High School (Alabama). Imes then went on to attend Fisk University, earning a B.A. in General Science. After Fisk, he taught math and physics at several black colleges before eventually returning to Fisk in 1910 as a graduate student and math instructor. After receiving his M.A. from Fisk in 1915, he was accepted into the University of Michigan Ph.D. program in physics.

At Michigan, Imes research and doctoral thesis focused on applying infrared spectroscopy to study the properties of atoms and molecules. This research led to two publications describing how molecules emit infrared light waves in discrete quanta. These findings provided early verification of quantum theory (branch of physics dealing with the nature of sub-atomic particles). Imes earned his Ph.D. in Physics at Michigan in 1918 - becoming the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Physics after Edward Bouchet (in 1876 at Yale University).

After Michigan, Dr. Imes, unable to secure a position in academia at a major university due to discrimination, relocated to New York where he worked for several years as a research physicist at several companies. During this period he was awarded four patents for instruments designed to measure magnetic and electric properties of materials.
In 1930, Dr. Imes returned to Fisk as professor and chairman of the newly re-organized physics department. At Fisk, and later at New York University, he continued his research in infrared spectroscopy as well as experimenting with x-rays and magnetic materials.

Dr. Imes was a member of Sigma Xi (scientic research honor society), and an active member of the American Physical Society and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. For his pioneering work in infrared spectroscopy, Dr. Imes became an internationally known physicist and his work was an important contribution to quantum physics.