Elmer Imes. Privilege and discrimination.

Smithsonian archive photo of Elmer Imes in the Catskills
Smithsonian archive photo of Elmer Imes in the Catskills

In the 'good' years of my PhD in Salamanca, we, the third and fourth year PhD students, had to give about 60 hours of classes a year. I loved teaching, even if it was the practical classes that university lecturers hated, and I had a great time with the students. One year I was in the School of Pharmacy, where I had to teach the physical chemistry lab, and another year I was in the School of Chemistry, where I also had the physical chemistry lab (this one more advanced). One of the most common experiments was to measure and analyse the infrared spectrum of hydrogen chloride. The students were taken to a hood, hydrochloric acid was poured over sulphuric acid and the gas released (hydrogen chloride) was led into a container which we measured in the spectrometer. The result was a spectrum full of peaks whose separation depends on the mass and geometry of the molecule. This is why the exercise is so popular, because such a simple activity can demonstrate many concepts such as the quantification of energy, isotopes or statistical thermodynamics.

This summer I learned in the US that the first person to measure this spectrum was a black scientist called Elmer Samuel Imes in 1919. Imagine that! How remarkable that the son of someone who had been enslaved, who grew up in the South and in the worst era of segregation, got his PhD and was the first to do what chemistry students all over the world are now doing. This man should be the talk of the world! Not so. When I got back to Glasgow, I went to the library and went through a stack of textbooks and dozens of articles talking about the experiment, and none of them mentioned Imes. So I set about writing an article on his biography and a brief review of black history in the USA (plus it's very interesting to see how infrared spectra were measured a century ago!) The result is published in the latest issue of the Anales de Química de la Real Sociedad Española de Química (RSEQ). It is a bit more advanced than what I usually present here (after all, it is aimed at chemists), but I promise it will be worth it. The article has also won the Salvador Senent Award of the RSEQ. You can find the link to the article here:

Elmer Imes, historia negra de los Estados Unidos y la espectroscopía (In Spanish)

I am trying to get the English version published. As soon as I do, I will post the link here!
Published on 19 June 2023