Edward Bouchet was a trailblazer in myriad ways. Bouchet earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University in 1876, becoming the first Black American to receive a doctorate in the United States. He was also the first Black American student nominated to Phi Beta Kappa. Until recently, Bouchet was thought to have been the first black student to earn a Yale degree when he received his B.A. in 1874. (This distinction belongs to both Richard Henry Green, who graduated from Yale College in 1857; and Courtland Van Rensselaer Creed, who earned a medical degree that same year.)
Bouchet was born in New Haven, CT to a family active in the local church. His father was a freed slave who worked as a laborer. Even though slavery was outlawed in Connecticut in 1848, education was still segregated during Bouchet’s time, so he was educated in one of New Haven’s schools for black students.
Bouchet got his break when he secured a place at Hopkins Grammar School – which is still known for sending students to Yale today. After graduating at the top of his class at Hopkins, Bouchet entered Yale. He went on to receive both undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale, where his thesis focused on the science of optics.
Yale degrees did not insulate the newly minted Ph.D. student from the vicious racism and segregation of his time. Rather than head to a professorship at a prestigious university, he moved to Philadelphia to become a science instructor at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY), a Quaker-backed institution devoted to teaching the city’s black population. Today, it is known as Cheyney University.
While Bouchet’s record of success at Yale did not immediately open the gates of academia and science to African American students, his legacy continues through the Edward A. Bouchet Undergraduate Fellowship program. The fellowship’s goal is to increase the number of minority students and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities in pursuing Ph.D.s and subsequent careers in academia.