Alumnus was a Black engineering pioneer

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Harry James Green '32, '43

Harry James Green, Jr., possessed the courage to be first. Twice.

In the throes of the Great Depression, Green became the first Black student at The Ohio State University to earn a chemical engineering degree. Eleven years later, in 1943, he became the first African American in the United States to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering, once again at Ohio State.

But his impact as an engineer would not stop there.

Green was born in St. Louis on December 7, 1911. Upon graduation from high school in 1928, he enrolled at Ohio State and was one of only a handful of Black students at the time. An exceptional scholar, he was a member of the Phi Eta Sigma honor society, Phi Lambda Upsilon chemistry honor society and Sigma Xi scientific research honor society, as well as a Kappa Alpha Psi brother. He also was an accomplished gymnast on Coach Leo Staley’s team, competing on the high bar, side horse, parallel bars and rings.

News clipping from The Lantern - Harry J. Green gymnast
Newsclipping from The Lantern - Harry J. Green, gymnast

Graduating from college during the Great Depression dimmed Green’s prospects of finding a job in industry, but he did secure a position as a chemistry instructor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. In 1937, he continued his studies at MIT, where he completed his master’s degree a year later. He was promoted to assistant professor at North Carolina A&T.

In 1941, Green came back to Ohio State on a Julius Rosenwald fellowship. His PhD dissertation detailed aspects of dialysis, a process for separating particles in solution by passing them through a membrane. Shortly after graduating with his second Ohio State degree, he returned to North Carolina A&T as a full professor, but would soon resume his pursuit of career as a professional chemical engineer.

In 1944 Green joined Stromberg-Carlson, a telecommunications equipment and electronics manufacturer in Rochester, New York, as a senior engineer. Initially he worked on telephone transmitters, then was promoted to lead the company’s metallurgy group. In 1959, he became supervisor of manufacturing research and development in the production engineering department.

An article headlined “Problem Solver” in the November 1958 issue of Ohio State Monthly described one of his significant contributions while with the company. Here is an excerpt:

Harry J. Green - Stromber-Carlson invention
From the Ohio State Monthly article, Green (center) explains to his son the special furnace he designed to convert coal into carbon.

“A prominent firm which makes transmitters for phones was having trouble obtaining sufficient quantities of a special carbon, until an Ohio State graduate solved the problem. Dr. Harry J. Green, Jr., BChE ’32, PhD ’43, was the chemical engineer who saved the day for Stromberg-Carlson. The sizeable task of developing the process and equipment to produce the special carbon had been given to Dr. Green. After a great amount of experimentation, he was able to turn out carbon particles of the high quality necessary for the firm’s transmitters. Dr. Green’s accomplishment was in taking a different type of coal and converting it into a carbon equivalent in microphonic characteristics to any other carbon used for transmitter production.”

In the same article, Green is quoted about the Ohio State courses he remembered most vividly. They “were taught by Profs. Koffolt and Withrow of chemical engineering and the inimitable Prof. McCaughey of mineralogy.”

In 1970, Green joined Xerox Corporation in the research department as a staff scientist. He retired in 1976.

His advice to young scientists, as told to interviewer T. A. Heppenheimer for the 1999 book Notable Black American Scientists, was to remain flexible and “move into whatever the situation is, whatever the barriers.”

Ohio State was also the first in the nation to award a chemical engineering doctoral degree to a woman, Ruth Feng, in 1931.

Research sources included: The Journal of Blacks in Higher EducationAfrican Americans in Science, Math, and Invention (A to Z of African Americans) by Ray Spangenburg and Kit Moser; Notable Black American Scientists edited by Kristine Krapp; The Lantern, November 1929, January 1930; Makio, January 1943; Ohio State Monthly, November 1958; University Archives

Harry J Green-First Black Science PhDs table
List from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 15 (Spring 1997), pp. 92-99

-by Matt Schutte, The Ohio State University College of Engineering 

Category: History Makers
Tag: alumni