On this date in 1922, Ralph Gardner was born. He was an African American scientist who specialized in the development of hard plastics.
He was born in Cleveland to Vivian Hicks Gardner, a teacher and housewife, and Clarence Chavous Gardner, a musician and government worker. His mother earned a degree from the University of Illinois. While in the eighth and ninth grade Gardner realized that chemistry was his direction in life. Gardner attended the Cleveland Public Schools, graduating from John Adams High School.
He began college at the Case School of Applied Science in 1939 but grew disillusioned with the treatment he received there. As the only black student in their cooperative program (designed to find work for its students), he found it demeaning to be told that the school’s efforts to find him a job in a hospital kitchen or as a busboy were fruitless.
He transferred to the University of California Berkley, then back home to eventually graduate from the University of Illinois School of Chemistry in 1943. -Chavis took a research post at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory. For the next four-and-a-half years, Gardner-Chavis was employed on classified plutonium research on the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the United States developing the atomic bomb, the use of which ended World War II in 1945
He worked under nuclear scientist Dr. Enrico Fermi and radioactivity scientist Dr. Nathan Sugarman. Gardner was one of more than a dozen black scientists who were involved in research on the atomic project. Those black scientists known to have been involved in the metallurgical laboratories also included Lloyd Albert Quarterman, Edward A. Russell, Moddie Taylor, Harold Delaney, Benjamin Scott, J. Ernest Wilkins, and Jaspar Jefferies.
A second group at Columbia University included George Dewitt Turner, Cecil Goldsburg White, Sydney Oliver Thompson, William Jacob Knox, and George Warren Reid, Jr. Despite his work on the atomic bomb, Gardner could not find an academic position in his field when he left Argonne in 1947 so he worked as a waiter until 1949.
Known throughout most of his life as Ralph Alexander Gardner, he added the “Chavis” surname late in his career in recognition of his relationship to John Chavis, in 1760 the first African American to graduate from Princeton. In 1949, he became a research chemist and project leader at the Standard Oil Company in Ohio, where he remained for almost 20 years.
Gardner-Chavis completed his graduate studies at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, earning both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in chemistry in 1952 and 1959 respectively. Gardner-Chavis then took a teaching position in Cleveland State University’s Chemistry Department, where he remained full-time from 1968 to 1985.
He later combined part-time teaching with work in the research lab of Molecular Technology Corp., a private firm where he also served as the Vice President of Research and on the board of directors.
Currently, he holds emeritus status in the CSU Chemistry Department, where he continues his research on catalysis and molecular technology, topics on which he has published numerous scholarly articles.
Dr. Ralph Gardner-Chavis became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity in 1942 and AICHE in 2001.