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Dr Henry Aaron Hill

Henry Aaron Hill became the first African American president of the American Chemical Society.

Henry Aaron HillIf you think it's difficult to find a job today, you might have to think again. Henry Aaron Hill had to send out no less than 54 applications after graduating with a PhD in organic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1942. He was finally hired by the North Atlantic Research Corporation, Massachusetts, US. 

As an African American born in 1915, a time of racial discrimination in the US, Henry had to attend a segregated university, where he obtained his BSc degree. Because of his excellent grades, MIT accepted him for a PhD programme, where he worked under the supervision of Professor Robert Hockett on predicting the optical rotation value of molecules with several stereocentres. While at MIT, Henry met his mentor, organic chemist Professor James Norris. James, who was noted for his decency and humanity, inspired Henry to pursue his dream of a career as a researcher:

“James was the first big man I met who was more interested in my ability to learn chemistry than in the identity of my grandparents.”

Business man

At the North Atlantic Research Corporation, Henry quickly rose to director (1943) and then to vice president (1944) of research, developing water-based paints, firefighting foam and synthetic rubber. In 1946, he joined the bottle-sealant-producing Dewey & Alamy Chemical Company as a research supervisor. Six years later, Henry founded his own company, National Polychemicals, supplying monomers and intermediates for polymer production.

However, Henry was ambitious and wanted to use his profound knowledge of polymer chemistry to make a difference. He founded a second company in 1961, Riverside Research Laboratory, where he developed rubbers, resins and plastics, and offered consulting services for the polymer industry. Appointed by the National Commission on Product Safety as expert on material flammability, Henry devised safety tests and regularly testified as an expert witness in court.

President of the American Chemical Society

Henry was an active member of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and, in 1977, became the ACS's first African American president. He was passionate about promoting professionalism. As chairman of the ACS's committee on professional relations, he formulated a directory of guidelines for employment and termination conditions - a landmark document that became widely accepted within the chemical industry.

In 1979, Henry died of a heart attack in Haverhill, Massachusetts. His friends and colleagues at the ACS established the Henry A Hill award, which, since 1984, recognises chemists who have made a distinguished contribution to the area of professional relations.

Words by Katrina Kramer
Image © AP/AP/Press Association Images
Published April 2015

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