Ralph Gardner-Chavis (pictured) owns the distinction of being one of the scientists that worked on early experiments that would lead to the development of the atomic bomb. Despite Dr. Gardner-Chavis’ academic achievements and talents, he maintained a blue-collar work ethic while not allowing racial barriers to prevent him from his goals. Gardner-Chavis was born on this day in 1922.
Gardner-Chavis was born Richard Alexander Gardner to parents Clarence, a musician and government employee, and Vivian, a school teacher, in the city of Cleveland. Developing a love for chemistry while in high school, Gardner graduated from public school and began his collegiate career at the Case School of Applied Science in 1939, which later became Case Wester Reserve University.
The school provided a work placement program, but attempted to place Gardner in food service positions that he felt wasn’t his true calling. Gardner would head to the West Coast, enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley. Gardner later graduated from the University of Illinois School of Chemistry in 1943.
Gardner took on a research position at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National laboratory, and for four years, he worked as part of the Manhattan Project research and development team. Gardner’s work on plutonium research would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb, which ended the second World War in 1945. Working under nuclear scientist Dr. Enrico Fermi and radioactivity scientist Dr. Nathan Sugarman, Gardner was one of a dozen or so Black scientists that offered their time to the project.
Amazingly, Gardner’s work on the project didn’t land him an academic position, so he worked as a waiter between 1947 and 1949. He would later become a research chemist and project leader at the Standard Oil Company in Ohio, working there for two decades. After earning a Master’s and PhD from Case Western Reserve, he would lead Cleveland State University’s Chemistry department from 1968 to 1985.
Gardner added Chavis to his surname in honor of John Chavis, who in 1760 became the first African-American to graduate from Princeton. With a specialization in the development of hard plastics, Gardner-Chavis also worked in the fields of catalysis and molecular technology.
Dr. Gardner-Chavis currently serves as Associate Professor Emeritus at the Cleveland State University Chemistry Department to this day.