Edward Bouchet: Changing U.S. higher education forever

Sometimes there are individuals who by the nature of being oneself and moving forward make history and influence change. One such individual is Edward A. Bouchet, PhD (1852-1918).

Higher education in the United States prior to the early 1800s was accessible primarily to white males of some social and financial privilege.  Women’s colleges (e.g., Oberlin, 1837) would be founded in the early19th century.  Two HBCUs (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania,1837; Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, 1854) were established for blacks before the American Civil War although the vast majority of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established post civil-war.  The Land Grant university was developed in 1862 and shortly thereafter land grant universities were established throughout the United States including the addition of the 1890 HBCU institutions in the formerly segregated South.  As is evident above, very few individuals of color and women were provided access to seek higher education let alone an opportunity to earn a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) prior to the 1870s.  Edward A. Bouchet would change that history.

Edward A. Bbouchetouchet was born on September 15, 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut.  According to Dr. Curtis Patton, Edward Bouchet “became a man of exceptional intellectual and emotional courage, undaunted by the barriers of the day”.  He attended the Artisan Street Colored School and New Haven High School prior to entering the Hopkins School in 1868 where he studied the “classics, Latin, Greek and Greek history, geometry and algebra and graduated valedictorian”.  Bouchet entered Yale in 1870 to study physics and mathematics and graduated with highest honors in 1874.  Two years later, he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale becoming the first African American in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D.  He was one of the first African Americans to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa Honor society.

In 2005, Yale University and Howard University established the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society (Bouchet Society) to recognize outstanding scholarly achievement and promotes diversity and excellence in doctoral education and the professoriate . As the co-founding chapters, Yale University and Howard University succeeded in honoring Dr. Bouchet’s pioneering contributions to doctoral education and established an ever increasing network of scholars and advocates for students who have been historically underrepresented in the professoriate. Since the founding, additional chapters have been established (Cornell University, Rutgers University, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, the George Washington University, University of California, Los Angeles, University of California, San Diego, University of Miami, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Washington University, St. Louis) and many deserving emerging scholars and faculty have been inducted to membership. At Virginia Tech, we are honored to have been recently invited to develop a chapter and induct VT PhD candidates as members.  This year, VT President Timothy Sands delivered the keynote address at the 11th Annual Edward A. Bouchet Forum at Howard University and received the Legacy Award.

Edward Bouchet lived during a challenging time period for African Americans and he persevered. He expected much of himself and achieved even more. In addition to the Bouchet Graduate Honor society, his achievements and legacy are celebrated through numerous fellowships and awards such the Bouchet undergraduate fellowship at Yale, Promising Scholars fund, Bouchet Leadership award, American Physical Society Bouchet Award, and more.

Edward Bouchet served as a role model throughout his life and does so today. His legacy continues through the work of the Bouchet Society and especially the fellows selected annually by the chapters for their academic excellence, leadership, character, service and commitment to inclusion and diversity in the academy.  Challenges still exist today and there is much work to be done. The scholarship conducted by the Bouchet Fellows gives great value and meaning to society and their commitment to an inclusive academy helps continue the change that Bouchet started more than century ago.

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