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The First Female Botany PhD – Dr. Marie Clark Taylor

It’s Black History Month and we wanted to shine a spotlight on a trailblazer in STEM and Botany.

On, June 11, 1941 Dr. Marie Clark Taylor earned her Ph.D. in botany from Fordham University. Making her the first woman of any race to receive a PhD in Botany and the first to earn a science doctorate of any kind at Fordham University. 

She did this a decade before Brown v Board of Education, 23 years before the famous Civil Right Act of 1964 and 31 years before the passage of title 9. As a Black woman many forces worked against her, but she prevailed.

Dr. Taylor was born in 1911, graduated from Howard University with her Bachelors in Botany in 1933 and her Masters in 1935. Before pursuing her PhD, she taught high school biology and served in the Army Red Cross in WW2. 

Her research focused on photomorphogenesis, the influence of light on plant growth. This is different than photosynthesis which the process of how plants convert light into energy. Rather it is how plants are able to tell the difference between light and dark. Specifically, she focused on just how long exposure to light, or a photoperiod, would lead to a flower blooming.  Her work taught us the perfect conditions to make our flowers bloom.

Marie also dedicated much of her career to education, becoming an assistant professor at Howard University’s botany department. Later becoming chair of the Botany department in 1947 until her 1976 retirement. She developed the rooftop botanical greenhouse laboratory, expanded the botany and zoology departments, and an auditorium is named in her honor.

She didn’t limit herself to academia, she also was passionate about bringing science, specifically living plants into junior highs, high school and college classrooms. If you studied a living leaf beneath a microscope in your biology class, you can thank Dr. Marie Clark Taylor. Working with the National Science Foundation, she developed over 200 summer science institutes to share her new hands-on teaching methods over the course of ten years. Her work struck the attention of President Lyndon B Johnson who invited her to teach seminars across the globe.

Dr. Marie Clark Taylor is unfortunately, a largely unsung hero in education, like many BIPOC women whose impact often remains ignored and buried over time. That’s why it is so important to share the legacy of her work, which can be seen and experienced in classrooms across the globe. Her accomplishments are even more impressive when considering the massive barriers which actively worked against her success. 

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Sources:
https://www.womeninhorticulture.com/post/woman-of-firsts-marie clark-taylor
https://fordhamobserver.com/66452/sports-and-health/remembering-the-legacy-of-marie-clark-taylor-ph-d-a-trailblazing-female-botanist-of-color/
https://dbg.org/marie-clark-taylor/
https://www.finegardening.com/article/marie-clark-taylor-and-the-wonder-of-aliveness
https://www.wowstem.org/post/marie-clark-taylor
https://www.dmbotanicalgarden.com/5-historic-black-figures-in-horticulture/

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