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Emmett Chappelle

Environmental scientist and biochemist[?] Emmett W. Chappelle was born on October 24, 1925 in Phoenix, Arizona to Viola White Chappelle and Isom Chappelle. His family grew cotton and tended cows on a small farm at the edge of town. Chappelle was drafted into the U.S. Army, right after graduating from the Phoenix Union Colored High School in 1942. He was assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, where he was able to take some engineering courses. Chappelle was later reassigned to the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division and served in Italy. After returning to the U.S., Chappelle went on to earn his A.A. degree from Phoenix College. With the help provided by the GI Bill of Rights, Chappelle was able to receive his B.S. degree in biology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1950.

Chappelle went on to serve as an instructor at the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee from 1950 to 1953, where he was also able to conduct his own research. Chappelle’s work was noticed by the scientific community, and he accepted an offer to study at the University of Washington, where he received his M.S. degree in biology in 1954. Chappelle continued his graduate studies at Stanford University, though he did not complete a Ph.D. degree. In 1958 Chappelle joined the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore, where his research aided in the creation of a safe oxygen supply for astronauts. He went on to work for Hazelton Laboratories in 1963. In 1966, Chappelle joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a part of the Goddard Space Flight Center. Chappelle’s research has focused in the area of luminescence, which is light without heat. He has been involved in a number of projects, including the Viking space craft. Chappelle used chemicals from fireflies as well as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to develop a method of detecting life on Mars. He used this research in bioluminescence, light produced by living organisms, to detect bacteria in water, as well as in improving environmental management.

Chappelle retired from NASA in 2001. He received fourteen U.S. patents, produced more than thirty-five peer-reviewed scientific or technical publications, nearly fifty conference papers, and co-authored or edited numerous publications. Chappelle has been honored as one of the top 100 African American scientist and engineers of the 20th century. He received an Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA for his work. Chappelle was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007. He lived with his daughter and son-in-law in Baltimore.

Chappelle passed away on October 14, 2019.

Emmett W. Chappelle was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on August 30, 2012.

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Wilson Ward Elementary

George Washington Carver High School

University of California, Berkeley

University of Washington

Stanford University

Phoenix College

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Assateague, Maryland

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Environmental scientist and biochemist Emmett Chappelle (1925 - 2019) was honored as one of the top 100 African American scientist and engineers of the 20th century for the many impacts of his research in bioluminescence, light produced by living organisms.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Goddard Space Flight Center

Hazelton Laboratories

RIAS Martin M.

Johns Hopkins University

United States Army

Meharry Medical College

Stanford University

Research Institute for Advanced Studies

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Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Emmett Chappelle slates the interview and shares his favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his mother's growing up in Montgomery, Alabama</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Emmett Chappelle talks about how his father moved the family to Arizona</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his parents and the similarities between him and his parents</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his siblings and shares his childhood memories</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Emmett Chappelle remembers some of the sights, sounds, and smells from his childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his childhood neighborhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his childhood schools</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his extracurricular activities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Emmett Chappelle talks about how his interest in science developed</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Emmett Chappelle talks about living in the desert as a child</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Emmett Chappelle talks about the radio and newspapers of his youth</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his high school experience</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his high school teachers</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his speech impediment</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his experience in the U.S. Army during World War II</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his experience in Italy during World War II</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his experience at Phoenix College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his wife and why he changed his major to biochemistry</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Emmett Chappelle talks about teaching at Meharry Medical College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his experience at the University of Washington</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Emmett Chappelle discusses his research at Stanford University and the University of Washington</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his research at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore, Maryland</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his experience as an astrochemist at Hazelton Laboratories and his extraterrestrial research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Emmett Chappelle discusses his discoveries in bioluminescence</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his research at the Goddard Space Flight Center and Johns Hopkins University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Emmett Chappelle discusses his research in fluorescents as well as his legacy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Emmett Chappelle discusses his hopes for the African American community and talks about his family</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Emmett Chappelle talks about his students and his military awards</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Emmett Chappelle tells the story of how he learned how to swim</a>

<a href="">Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Emmett Chappelle describes his photos</a>







Emmett Chappelle talks about his experience as an astrochemist at Hazelton Laboratories and his extraterrestrial research
Emmett Chappelle discusses his discoveries in bioluminescence
Okay, now, from '63' [1963] to 1966, you worked as a biochemist for Hazelton Laboratories in Falls Church [Virginia]. What project were you working on there?$$I was developing a system for determining if there was life on other planets.$$Okay. Now, so you were there for a fairly long time working on this, right?$$Um-hum.$$Okay, from what I have here, they would call you an exobiologist, right?$$(No audible response).$$Someone who is engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life and the effects of extraterrestrial surroundings on living organisms.$$Um-hum.$$Okay, so at this point, you become an astrochemist, right. So how do--$$(Laughter).$$--you like that title (laughter)?$$I never considered myself as an astrochemist, even though that was the title they put on me. I was always, considered myself a biochemist.$$Okay, now, did you, if you told somebody you were looking for, you were trying to determine if there was extraterrestrial life, what kind of conversations would you have with people? I mean would they think it was like something that's impossible or what did people think then?$$Well, they wouldn't know what to think. I'm still not sure whether or not there's life on other planets.$$Do you think it's likely?$$I think it's likely. It's not life as we know it here on earth. But I think it's likely that there's, there are organisms up there that reproduce.$$And so you're saying that there are definitely organisms in space that we produce here?$$What?$$You're saying there're organisms in space right now that we produce here in, on earth?$$Well, I'm saying that there's most likely life out there that will reproduce in their own environment, which is (unclear) a criterion of life, the ability to reproduce.$$Okay, now, the target of your design, the instruments that you were designing was the Viking I Mission [the first successful NASA spacecraft to Mars] which occurred in 1975, right?$$That was supposed to be the vehicle on which my experiment would be flown, Viking.$$All right, so was it? I mean did you have experiments--$$It never flew.$$It never flew. Okay. All right. What happened? Why didn't it fly?$$That's a good question. They decided that the experiment which I designed was too specific, that it would call for life, to be too close to life here on earth, and that most likely, it wouldn't work.$$Or it wouldn't detect something that might be close to life on earth, but not quite--$$Um-hum.$$Okay. Okay, so, but Viking did, Viking flew, but your instrumentation didn't go?$$Right.$Okay, all right. All right, now, also, now, working on this project, you became interested in bioluminescence, right?$$(No audible response).$$And tell us how that took place. What is bioluminescence, and what happened during the project to get you interested in it?$$You've seen a fire fly, haven't you?$$Yes, sir.$$Well, that's bioluminescence. You can, you can take those fire flies and grind them up and extract the enzyme, mix it with Adenosine Triphosphate and get light.$$Now, this I kind of a code method of producing light, right? I mean using something that's not, you know, on fire or--$$Um-hum.$$--something without a spark?$$You could call it that.$$Yeah, so is there any heat produced from this light?$$No measurable heat.$$Okay, so are you the first then--I read that you were the first person to discover the chemical composition of bioluminescence, right?$$Yes.$$Okay, all right, so, and that's why you're in the Inventors Hall of Fame, is that true, because of this?$$Yes.$$Okay, and so, how was, how long did it take you to, you know, come up with the chemical composition of bioluminescence and--$$It took years.$$So, when, I mean how many years, I mean approximately how many years did it take to do that?$$What?$$Approximately, how many years did it take you to discover this?$$Approximately three.$$Three years, okay. All right, that's not a very long time. But, so did you--now, as a biochemist, I didn't ask you this before, but I guess this is a good time--now is as good a time as any. What's the day-to-day activities of a biochemist working on the projects that you were working on? I mean how soon do you get to the laboratory, and how many breaks do you get, and--$$(Laughter).$$(Laughter) Is it a short work week or do you have time to play cards or do you, I mean what is the--or do you have to work real hard or what? What is it like?$$Oh, a biochemist is a person who investigates the chemistry of living organisms.$$Okay, well, I was asking about your routine. What do you do?$$(Laughter) What do you mean by my routine?$$Well, what you do, you know, every day after you get up and get dressed and ready to go to work, what do you do at work?$$Well, you go into your laboratory and carry out experiments, hopefully, designed to answer questions as to, as to what are the chemical reactions involved in carrying out a certain biological reaction.$$Okay, typically, would you have a number of assistants or an assistant, or did you have to do everything by yourself or what?$$Usually, you have an assistant.$$Okay, so with this kind of investigation on the properties of bioluminescence, did you utilize electronic measurement devices as well as--$$Yes. You have to use electronic devices to measure the light.$$Okay, can you give us any more detail or--(laughter) are we out of luck (laughter)?$$(Laughter). (Unclear)$$Okay.$$You start out with the fire fly which you have to obtain by way. Either you catch it yourself or you pay the little kids to run around catching them for you. Then you bring them into the lab. You chop off their tails, grind them up and get a solution out of these ground-up tails which contains the enzyme sulforates (ph.) (unclear) and the cofactor Luciferin. You add Adenosine Triphosphate to that mixture and you get light. Adenosine Triphosphate is usually called ATP, which is found in all living organisms. And we were able to use that reaction to, to measure the bacteria in infected urine samples and some of the reaction mixture to the urine sample and measure the amount of light we get.$$Okay, so, well, we're gonna pause here, and then we'll pick up again.$$Okay.$$'Cause I understand like what, yeah.