Edward Alexander Bouchet


Born: 15 September 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Died: 28 October 1918 in New Haven, Connecticut, USA

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Edward Alexander Bouchet was the son of William Francis Bouchet (1817-1885) and Susan Cooley (1817-1920). William Bouchet was born in South Carolina, but moved to New Haven where he worked as a slave for a plantation owner. The plantation owner freed him from slavery and gave him money to start a business. He worked as an unskilled labourer and later in life became a porter at Yale College (now Yale University). He became prominent in the Black community of New Haven, serving as deacon of the Congregational Church on Temple Street, the oldest church in the city for Blacks formally recognised in 1829. Susan Cooley, the daughter of Asher Cooley and Jane Drake was born in Westport, Fairfield, Connecticut. Throughout her long life she appears on many census forms, her "Race" being given as "Black", Coloured" or, at least once, as "Mulatto" (meaning mixed race). Susan washed laundry for Yale College students.

William Bouchet married Susan Cooley in the Congregational Church in New Haven on 15 May 1841. The Reverend Amos G Beman married them. He was:-

... pastor of the Temple Street Church from 1838 to 1857, a noted temperance lecturer, anti-slavery agitator, agent and station master of the Underground Railway, and tireless worker for Negro Suffrage in Connecticut. 
William and Susan Cooley had four children: Jane Hannah Bouchet (1843-1900), Frances Bouchet (1845-1930), Georgianna Bouchet (1849-1924) and Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852-1918), the subject of this biography. At this time there was total segregation in school education and Edward Bouchet attended the first school in New Haven for African Americans, the Artisan Street Colored School. This was a small school with thirty pupils which had only one teacher, Sarah Wilson. She was a black teacher who had opened a school for African Americans in her own house in 1854. Bouchet attended this school until 1866 when he entered New Haven High School. In fact Sarah Wilson played an important role in Bouchet's career since she encouraged him to learn and to make the most of his obviously exceptional academic abilities. He was accepted by Hopkins Grammar School in 1868 and there he studied history, mathematics, Greek, and Latin for two years, graduating in June 1870 ranked first in his year. Hopkins Grammar School was a private boys school which trained its students in classics and in science to prepare them for entry to Yale College.

We are unsure exactly when Edward Bouchet's father, William, became a janitor at Yale College. On the 1860 census his occupation is given as "Helper" while by the time of the 1870 census he was a janitor at Yale College (now Yale University). The fact that Bouchet's father worked at Yale College must have played a role in him wanting his son to study there. In fact, Edward Bouchet was not the first African American student at Yale, the first being Richard Henry Green who graduated in 1857. There may have been one or two African American students at Yale in the 1860s when Bouchet's father began working there so he would have seen that it was not impossible for his son to attend.

Edward Bouchet entered Yale College in September 1870 and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in 1874. He took courses in German, French, Greek, Latin, mathematics, mechanics, physics, and astronomy. His marks were high in all his subjects but his best mark was in mathematics. He graduated ranked sixth out of a class of 124 students. He was elected a member of Yale's chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Honorary Society, becoming the second African American in the Society. The Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa had been inactive for a few years so Bouchet was not elected Phi Beta Kappa until 1884. George Washington Henderson (1850-1936) of the University of Vermont was elected Phi Beta Kappa in 1877 so the delay at Yale meant that Bouchet was denied the honour of being the first African American Phi Beta Kappa.

Bouchet now had some luck [17]:-

As a talented young black man interested in science, Bouchet had come to the attention of Alfred Cope, a philanthropist in Philadelphia who was on the board of managers for the Institute for Colored Youth. The Institute for Colored Youth was one of the few places in the city where black students could get an academic high school education. Cope wanted to build up the science program there, and hoped to bring Bouchet onto the staff. But before recruiting him as a teacher, Cope encouraged Bouchet to continue his studies, and paid for his graduate education at Yale. 
He then undertook research and, two years later in June of 1876, he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in Physics from Yale College. He was advised by Arthur Williams Wright (1836-1915), the first scientist to be awarded a Ph.D. outside Europe. Bouchet's dissertation was on geometrical optics and it had the title "Measuring Refractive Indices." This achievement made him the first African American to be awarded a Ph.D. To measure this achievement, we note that he was only the sixth person to be awarded a Ph.D. in physics by Yale.

Sadly Bouchet's race meant that he had a very different career than he deserved with his qualifications. His applications for a university position were unsuccessful, certainly because of racial discrimination. As a result, he accepted Alfred Cope's offer of a position at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. This Institute had been set up by the Quaker, Richard Humphreys, in 1837 as a school for boys but in 1852 it had become a prominent coeducational private primary and high school. When Bouchet was appointed to the Institute, its Principal was Fanny Jackson Coppin (1837 - 1913), the first black woman in the United States to be the head of an institution of higher learning. Before becoming Principal, Coppin had taught Greek, Latin, and mathematics at the Institute [17]:-

At the Institute for Colored Youth, Bouchet headed the school's new science program. In addition to physics and chemistry, Bouchet taught classes in astronomy, physical geography, and physiology. An advocate for improving science education, Bouchet repeatedly asked the school's board of managers to provide laboratory space for students to perform individual experiments. In addition to his regular teaching, Bouchet gave lectures on various scientific topics for students and staff, and even reached out to the wider community by giving public lectures on science.
Bouchet joined the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas in Philadelphia, taking an active role on the vestry and as church secretary for many years. Appointed a lay reader by the bishop, he took an active part in the church services. This Church provided a focal point for Philadelphia's African Americans [6]:-
Bouchet took his scientific interests and abilities beyond the Institute for Colored Youth into the broader black community, giving public lectures on various scientific topics. He was also a member of the Franklin Institute, a foundation for the promotion of the mechanical arts, chartered in 1824. Bouchet maintained his ties with Yale through the local chapter of the Yale Alumni Association, attending all meetings and annual dinners.
Around 1900 there was a movement to have African Americans study technical subjects and not academic subjects. The main leader of the African American community at this time was Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) who believed that the way forward for the community was to built economic strength through giving African Americans industrial skills rather than academic ones [18]:-
When Coppin retired as principal in 1901, the Quaker managers were persuaded by Booker T Washington to change the classical thrust of the institution and replace it with a more industrial curriculum. Consequently, the Institute for Colored Youth closed its doors in Philadelphia in 1902 and moved to Cheyney, Pennsylvania, where it subsequently became Cheyney State College.
The immediate consequence in this change of direction for the Institute for Colored Youth was that the skilled academic Bouchet was no longer needed and he lost his job in 1902, fired by the all-white board. From September 1902 to November 1903, Bouchet taught mathematics and physics at the Charles H Sumner High School in St Louis, Missouri, the only black public high school in the city. From November 1903 to May 1904, he was the business manager of the Provident Hospital in St Louis, a small facility run by African-American physicians for their patients.

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition (also known as the St Louis World's Fair) was an international trade fair was exhibition spaces for over 60 countries held from May to December 1904. Bouchet was employed as U.S. Inspector of Customs at Ceylon Court, the exhibition site for Ceylon. In October 1906 Bouchet became manager of the St Paul's Normal and Industrial School at Lawrenceville, Brunswick County, Virginia. This school was founded by the Episcopal priest and educator Archdeacon James S Russell in 1888 to educate African Americans. In September 1908, Bouchet became principal of the Lincoln High School at Gallipolis, Ohio. All African American children in Gallipolis had to attend this school, built in 1868, and only in 1918, the year Bouchet died, did segregation at high schools in the town ease.

Bouchet left Lincoln High School in 1913 when his health deteriorated with an attack of arteriosclerosis. He returned to his home in New Haven but an improvement in his health saw him accept a position on the faculty of Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. This College had been founded by the Baptist Home Mission Society in 1881 to educate Baptist African Americans. Despite being founded to educate African Americans, most of the staff up to the time of Bouchet's appointment were European Americans. Only ten years after Bouchet's death did the College appoint an African American as president. In 1916 ill health again forced Bouchet to resign and, once again, he returned to his home in New Haven.

We know surprisingly little about Bouchet as a person since he left no writings with his thoughts on education or any other topic. A friend wrote in an obituary (see [17]) that Bouchet was:-

... a man of keen sensibilities and unusual refinement. He was a prolific reader and was greatly interested in the history of his own people and of his native town.
Bouchet never married and had no children. He died of heart failure in his home at New Haven and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, New Haven.

In recent years many honours have been given to Bouchet. For example: he was a 2019 honouree of the National Society of Black Physicists [11]: the American Physical Society makes the Edward A Bouchet Award [9]; the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society was inaugurated by Yale University and Howard University on 15 September 2005, in commemoration of Bouchet's birthday [5]; Yale University holds the Annual Yale Bouchet Conference on Diversity and Graduate Education [2]; and the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute is named for him.

Let us say a little more about some of these honours.

  1. In 1988, the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute [named at that time as the Edward A Bouchet - International Centre for Theoretical Physics Institute] was created by Professor Abdus Salam, the Nobel Laureate and Founding Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics [it is now named the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics] and the Distinguished Professor of Science and Engineering and Professor of Physics and First Chair of the Edward Bouchet Abdus Salam Institute, Dr Joseph Andrew Johnson III.

  2. The Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society (Bouchet Society) was named for the first African American doctoral recipient in the United States. It recognises outstanding scholarly achievement and promotes diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate. The Bouchet Society is a network of preeminent scholars who exemplify academic and personal excellence, foster environments of support and serve as examples of scholarship, leadership, character, service, and advocacy for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in the academies.

  3. The Edward A Bouchet Award promotes the participation of underrepresented minorities in physics by identifying and recognizing a distinguished minority physicist who has made significant contributions to physics research and the advancement of underrepresented minority scientists. The programme helps to publicise the lecturer's work and career development to the physics community, especially among minority physics students. The award was established in 1994 by the American Physical Society Committee on Minorities in Physics, and supported for 18 years by the Research Corporation, a private foundation for the advancement of science and technology. Subsequently the Award was supported by a grant from the Alfred Sloan Foundation and is now endowed thanks to individual and institutional donations.
For a list of previous winners of the Edward A Bouchet Award, each with the citation, see THIS LINK.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (19 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Honours awarded to Edward Bouchet
(Click below for those honoured in this way)

1. Bouchet award 

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project
  2. zbMATH entry


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