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Jennie Patrick: Pioneering Chemical Engineer

Jennie Patrick, a native of Gadsden, Alabama, is a retired chemical engineer and the founder of the Environmental Wellness Institute. In 1979, Jennie Patrick became the first African American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. degree in Chemical Engineering.

When interviewed by The HistoryMakers, Patrick describes what she was like as a child. She was very inquisitive, and contemplated things like creation, life and death. Patrick recalls, “… the thing I remember most is just attending the Sunday school classes and having probably more questions than the minister cared for, about the concepts of religion.”

Patrick was also a part of the historic integration of Alabama public schools in 1964. Patrick, along with ten other African American students, passed through an angry mob to enter Gadsden High School. There, she faced intense racism. She was physically attacked, and repeatedly demeaned by her teachers. Though she excelled in school, she was not allowed to join the National Honor Society because she was African American.

When she graduated from Gadsden High School, Patrick went to Tuskegee University. There, she faced discrimination as a woman in the field of chemical engineering. Wanting to continue in that field, Patrick transferred to the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), where she had a very difficult time as an African American. She recounts the sabotage of her senior project,

“I was […] doing these calculations, and I had gone there early in the morning. And as I sat in the room, all of a sudden, the door burst open to the room that I'm working [in]. And these four students come in, four, young, white males, and they grabbed me and pulled me away from the calculator. And I'd been sitting there for hours. And they take the calculator and type in nonsense data to destroy the data that I had sat there and put in, you know. I was dumbfounded. I was just horrified. And they laughed and laughed and said, ‘Now, finish your project.’”

In 1973, Patrick graduated from UC Berkeley with her B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering. She then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for her graduate studies, and graduated in 1979 with her Ph.D. in chemical engineering. She was the first African American woman to earn this degree.

Upon graduation, Patrick began working in the chemical engineering industry. She has worked for a number of well-respected companies, including General Electric, Phillip Morris, and Rohm and Haas. While at Rohm and Haas, a company that manufactures fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, she was exposed to over 4,000 chemicals. This resulted in a serious physical illness, which eventually ended Patrick’s career in the chemical engineering industry. Patrick then went on to Tuskegee University, where she taught Thermodynamics and mentored several young female students in a program she called the Honors Program at Tandem Hall.

Since she retired in 2000, Patrick has worked to establish the Environmental Wellness Institute to educate the public on environmental dangers. She wants to educate students on dangers associated with the field of chemical engineering, and educate the public on the potential dangers of everyday items, like antiperspirant deodorants and air fresheners. When reflecting on her life, Patrick emphasizes the importance of refusing to be distracted from the pursuit of your goals. While she has faced great hardship and discrimination, Patrick refused to become bitter because she feels that, “if you embrace negative energy, it makes you negative.” While she has many accomplishments, Patrick would simply like to be remembered as a loving and compassionate person.