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Dr. Henry C. McBay Outstanding Teacher Award
Dr. Henry C. McBay (1914-1995)
Dr. Henry Ransom Cecil McBay was a renowned Chemist and educator who taught in the Atlanta University System (Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Atlanta University) for over 41 years and one of the seven founders of NOBCChE. One of his greatest professional hallmarks was his love and passion for educating students in STEM. In honor of his legacy, NOBCChE established the Henry C. McBay Outstanding Teacher Award to recognize STEM educators for demonstrating outstanding contributions to the education and mentoring of young scientists and engineers.
Henry McBay was born to hardworking parents in Mexia, Texas on May 29, 1914. After graduating from high school at 16, he studied at Wiley College, where he "fell madly in love with [organic] chemistry...the most beautiful thing in the world." By age 20, he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science, second in the Class of '34. That same year enrolled at Atlanta University. As a graduate student at Atlanta University, he analyzed properties of plastics in an effort to learn how they compared and contrasted with natural rubber. He received an MS in organic chemistry in 1936. Upon receiving his MS degree, he spent the next 4 years teaching chemistry at Wiley College.
In 1940 he moved to Alabama to teach high school, while conducting war-related research at Tuskegee Institute (today Tuskegee University), led by George Washington Carver. While at Tuskegee, the funder of his research with the Carver team was a sugar refining company interested in an alternative to the jute fiber (used for rope and burlap sacks). Imported from India, jute fiber was scarce during World War I, and the Carver team was researching okra stems as a plausible substitute. McBay's work with the Carver team ultimately proved that it is impossible to harvest okra both for food and for fiber-- essentially ending his fellowship in 1942. “I had researched myself out of a job,” he said.
In 1942, he enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Chicago and received a PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1945. McBay’s dissertation topic, “Reactions of Atoms and Free Radicals in Solution," came by chance. Organic chemist Prof. Morris Kharasch assigned him to synthesize commercially unavailable compounds using acetyl peroxide. In collaboration with his advisor, he developed a method for safely handling these compounds and then for synthesizing other compounds for them. Their most important development was to synthesize from acetyl peroxide, a protein that proved to be useful in the treatment of prostate cancer. “I did not know it at the time, but nobody would work on acetyl peroxide because it is a very dangerous explosive...Either I did that project or I went to the army. At this point, they were shooting people in Belgium [Battle of the Bulge].” For the role he played in this discovery, McBay was awarded Chicago University’s prestigious Elizabeth Norton Prize for excellence in chemical research in 1944 and 1945.
In 1945, Dr. McBay joined the faculty at Morehouse College, and in 1960, he was named chair of the Chemistry department there. At Morehouse, McBay’s teaching load precluded him from doing much in the way of research. Instead he focused on turning out the best African American chemists in the country. His dedication to teaching and mentorship was legendary, earning the title “the Little Giant” for his rigorous academic standards. For years, he sought out talented blacks with degrees in Chemistry and then helped them along their career paths, either by getting them into a doctoral programs or getting them a prestigious at a historically black college. Over 50 chemistry majors under his tutelage went on to earn doctoral and medical degrees, many of whom went on to become important chemists and educators in their own right. Because of his reputation as an educator, in 1951, the United Nation, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) invited him to develop a Chemistry program for Liberia. In 1972, he co-founded the NOBCChE as a vehicle for further assisting African American Chemists to achieve their goals.In 1982 he returned to his alma mater, Atlanta University. In 1991 he was the first ever appointed MLK Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. McBay retired from full time teaching in 1986, but continued to teach on a part time basis until his death in 1995. Between 1936 and 1994, Henry McBay helped scores of African American gain their doctorates in Chemistry and then find suitable teaching positions at historically black colleagues and universities. The people Henry McBay helped in this manner constitute the Lion’s share of black chemists produced in the United States during those years, garnering him the title, the “godfather of African American chemistry”.
The submission deadline is September 15