The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

William Jackson

Chemist and academic administrator William M. Jackson was born on September 24, 1936 in Birmingham, Alabama. He received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Morehouse College in 1956 and Catholic University of America, CUA in 1961, respectively. His expertise is in photochemistry, lasers chemistry, and astrochemistry.

Jackson has been a research scientist in industry at Martin Co (now Lockheed-Martin) and the government at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology) and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). He has been an academician at the University of Pittsburgh (1969-1970), Howard University (1974-1985), and the University of California, Davis (UCD). He joined the faculty at UCD as a chemistry professor in 1985. He then became a distinguished professor in 1998, and chair of the chemistry department from 2000 to 2005. He was awarded millions of dollars in research and education grants and has taught and mentored under representative minority students at Howard University and UCD. Under his direction, the minority student population of the UCD chemistry graduate students increased. He continues to do research, as well as, recruiting and mentoring minority students in chemistry, even though he is officially retired.

In the field of astrochemistry, Jackson observed comets with both ground-based and satellite telescopes and used laboratory and theoretical studies to explain how the radicals observed in comets are formed. He led the team that made the first satellite (IUE) telescope cometary observation. His laboratory developed tunable dye lasers to detect and determine the properties of free radicals formed during the photodissociation of stable molecules. He continued to use lasers in the laboratory to map out the excited states of small molecules important in comets, planetary atmospheres, and the interstellar medium decompose into reactive atoms and radicals and are important in the chemistry of these astronomical bodies. Jackson published over 176 scientific papers, has a United States patent, and has edited two books.

Jackson is the recipient of many awards from universities and scientific organizations. They include the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) Percy Julian Award (1986), a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1989), the CUA alumni award for scientific achievements (1991), the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Research Award (1996), the Morehouse College Bennie Trail Blazer award (2011) and election as a Fellow in the American Physical Society (1995), in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2004) in, and American Chemical Society (2010). He is one of the six founders of NOBCChE; and in 1996, the Planetary Society named asteroid 1081 EE37 as (4322) Billjackson in his honor for contributions to planetary science.

William M. Jackson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 6, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.212

Sex

Male

Interview Date

11/6/2012 |and| 12/2/2017

Last Name

Jackson

Maker Category
Middle Name

M

Occupation
Schools

Catholic University of America

Morehouse College

Central High School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

William

Birth City, State, Country

Birmingham

HM ID

JAC32

Favorite Season

Summer

State

Alabama

Favorite Vacation Destination

Anywhere Warm

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

9/24/1936

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Davis

Country

United States

Favorite Food

None

Short Description

Astrophysicist William Jackson (1936 - ) was one of the founders of NOBCChE and a fellow of the APS, ACS, and AAAS. He also had an asteroid named in his honor.

Employment

University of California, Davis

University of Pittsburgh

Howard University

Diamond Ordinance Fuse Laboratory

Martin Marietta Corporation

National Bureau of Standards (NBS)

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

University of California Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

National Taiwan University

Goddard Space Flight Center

Favorite Color

None

Timing Pairs
0,0:15515,163:28614,193:32145,244:33108,254:36104,392:50357,444:65905,624:106326,920:107318,930:125850,1129:132891,1200:136092,1265:137062,1277:137450,1282:142670,1340:143070,1346:146700,1412:174982,1720:194302,1908:194944,1916:248236,2373:258401,2418:259065,2432:259729,2441:260476,2453:261057,2461:269300,2514:275081,2573:278615,2662:303612,2919:308022,2994:308984,3017:309576,3027:322600,3210:323400,3219:327762,3271:332861,3425:335840,3503:360564,3743:365566,3793:366076,3799:366484,3804:367198,3817:385084,4000:417774,4337:418458,4347:435998,4464:437131,4476:437955,4485:442584,4496:443352,4503:445000,4510:452140,4589:452524,4594:454636,4640:488588,4878:489596,4901:495116,4954:495980,4981:499688,5025:501436,5059:502880,5086:503412,5094:503716,5099:512834,5201:514210,5267:519800,5297:521720,5327:522488,5334:522968,5340:540610,5423$0,0:903,13:2193,33:18834,251:26954,263:27489,269:34837,371:39167,401:40278,414:66847,667:90950,892:98650,974:99090,979:104730,1003:113942,1043:115760,1054:132349,1188:137302,1243:148473,1363:158424,1483:165220,1513:173958,1636:189736,1864:206443,2022:216494,2127:217421,2137:242962,2378:263669,2516:266295,2553:279324,2682:324451,3145:324906,3151:359621,3469:380579,3652:401920,3852
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of William Jackson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - William Jackson lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes his mother's family baclground

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - William Jackson describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - William Jackson describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes his father's educational background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - William Jackson describes how his parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - William Jackson talks about his parents' personalities

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - William Jackson describes his siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes his earliest childhood memories

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes the sights, smells, and sounds of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - William Jackson describes the racial climate of Birmingham, Alabama in his youth

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - William Jackson talks about his home on Dynamite Hill

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes the difference between "black" and "colored"

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - William Jackson describes his experience with polio

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - William Jackson describes his involvement in sports

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes his recovery from polio

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes his experience at Immaculate Catholic School

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - William Jackson talks about his decision to attend Morehouse College

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - William Jackson describes his experience at Morehouse College

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes his social life at Morehouse College

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - William Jackson talks about Dr. Benjamin Mays

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - William Jackson talks about Omega Psi Phi Fraternity

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - William Jackson talks about those that influenced him

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - William Jackson talks about his decision to attend the Catholic University of America

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - William Jackson describes his influences at the Catholic University of America

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - William Jackson talks about meeting is wife

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - William Jackson describes his research

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - William Jackson talks about completing his Ph.D. degree

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes his work at the Martin-Marietta Company and the National Bureau of Standards

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes his work at the Goddard Space Flight Center

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - William Jackson describes the faculty at Howard University

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - William Jackson describes his work at the University of Pittsburgh

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes his inspiration for building his laser

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - William Jackson describes his work at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes his decision to work at the University of California, Davis

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes his work at the University of California and abroad

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - William Jackson talks about efforts to produce more minority Ph.D.s in science (part 1)

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - William Jackson talks about efforts to produce more minority Ph.D.'s in science (part 2)

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - William Jackson talks about his work as Chair of the Chemistry Department at University of California, Davis

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - William Jackson describes his early interest in chemistry, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes his early interest in chemistry, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - William Jackson talks about his decision to become a physical chemist

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - William Jackson describes how he came to attend Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - William Jackson talks about his research assistant position at Catholic University of America

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - William Jackson remembers his classmates at Catholic University of America

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - William Jackson talks about his Ph.D. work at the National Bureau of Standards, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - William Jackson talks about his Ph.D. work at the National Bureau of Standards, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - William Jackson talks about the instruments he used in his Ph.D. work

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes the history of instruments and processes in chemistry

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes his work at Martin Marietta Corporation

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - William Jackson describes his reasons for leaving Martin Marietta Corporation, pt. 1

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - William Jackson describes his reasons for leaving Martin Marietta Corporation, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - William Jackson recalls his reasons for returning to the National Bureau of Standards

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - William Jackson describes his research at the National Bureau of Standards

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - William Jackson remembers his coworkers at the National Bureau of Standards

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - William Jackson describes his experiences with racial discrimination at Martin Marietta Corporation

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - William Jackson talks about the role of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - William Jackson talks about his family

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - William Jackson recalls his reasons for leaving the Goddard Space Flight Center

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - William Jackson describes his role at the Goddard Space Flight Center, pt. 1

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes his role at the Goddard Space Flight Center, pt. 2

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - William Jackson talks about his research on photodissociation at the Goddard Space Flight Center

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - William Jackson talks about his research of free radicals using tunable light sources

Tape: 9 Story: 9 - William Jackson talks about the applications of his work in free radicals

Tape: 9 Story: 10 - William Jackson remembers the formation of NOBCChE

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - William Jackson talks about the creation of NOBCChE, pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - William Jackson talks about the creation of NOBCChE, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - William Jackson describes the NOBCChE's Minority Resource Centers for Science and Engineering, pt. 1

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - William Jackson describes the NOBCChE's Minority Resource Centers for Science and Engineering, pt. 2

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - William Jackson talks about the early years of the Minority Resource Centers for Science and Engineering

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - William Jackson talks about women in the sciences

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - William Jackson remembers the faculty and staff of the Howard University Department of Chemistry

Tape: 10 Story: 8 - William Jackson talks about the funding of the Howard University Department of Chemistry

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - William Jackson remembers his professorship at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - William Jackson describes his sabbatical at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Erlangen, Germany

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - William Jackson recalls his reasons for coming to the University of California, Davis, pt. 1

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - William Jackson recalls his reasons for coming to the University of California, Davis, pt. 2

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - William Jackson talks about his rank of professorship at the University of California, Davis

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes his positions at the University of California, Davis

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - William Jackson talks about the lack of African American professors at the University of California, Davis

Tape: 11 Story: 8 - William Jackson describes his role as chair of the chemistry department at the University of California, Davis

Tape: 11 Story: 9 - William Jackson talks about his research at the University of California, Davis

Tape: 12 Story: 1 - William Jackson describes his research in surface chemistry

Tape: 12 Story: 2 - William Jackson talks about the implications of his research on climate change

Tape: 12 Story: 3 - William Jackson talks about the effect of politics on the STEM industries

Tape: 12 Story: 4 - William Jackson reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 12 Story: 5 - William Jackson remembers the Ph.D. students he taught

Tape: 12 Story: 6 - William Jackson describes the role of a Ph.D. mentor and advisor

Tape: 12 Story: 7 - William Jackson reflects upon his life

Tape: 12 Story: 8 - William Jackson shares his advice for aspiring chemists

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$5

DAStory

5$3

DATitle
William Jackson describes his experience at Morehouse College
William Jackson describes his work at the Goddard Space Flight Center
Transcript
Okay, alright. So, okay, Morehouse. So, now was it much more challenging at Morehouse than it was in high school?$$I didn't get all A's, so yeah. Yeah, I mean, yeah, it was.$$Okay. Now, at Morehouse there was the great Dr. Henry McBay that everybody talks about.$$Right.$$We hear his name over and over again in these interviews.$$Right.$$What was your relationship like with Dr. McBay? What was he like?$$I did not take chemistry in high school, and I told you, my stepfather was a dentist. School started on a Monday, so the way I was going to get to Morehouse, he had to drive me up there. And so, he was going to drive me up there on, he wanted to leave on Saturday morning. And Mobile is about 250 miles from Atlanta, and then there were no interstate highways in those days, 1952. So, Harry Truman was president, and the interstate didn't come in until Eisenhower was elected. And he started it. So, he wanted to drive up that weekend. I think we started, and he had to come back so he wouldn't have to close his practice for the half a day on Saturday. So, we left, and I got there a couple days earlier than most of the freshmen, than all of the freshmen, in fact. It was early enough for me to talk to the upper classmen who were going to be assigned to work with the freshmen when they got there. In fact, when the other freshmen got there, they thought I was an upper classman. But in talking to the upper classmen, they said, "Well, what are you going to major in?" I said, "I'm going to major in math." They said, "Well, that's good. Don't take chemistry, because McBay is going to flunk you." At that point in my life, I didn't, you know, I was, I didn't believe that. And I didn't, I took it as a challenge, you know. I enrolled in general chemistry. Fortunately, I got a C the first semester and a B the second semester. But I got hooked. I liked the way, I mean, he made it interesting. He was a very good lecturer. He was very difficult, but I thought he was very fair. He didn't give you anything, but he didn't take anything away from you.$$So, you didn't start off setting the world on fire in chemistry. You got a C. Now, you're like fourteen years old, or fifteen?$$Fifteen.$$Fifteen, okay.$$My son did better in chemistry than I did.$$Okay.$$But, yeah, I got a C, but that's okay. I mean, you asked me my relationship with him. After I finished college, and got finished with graduate school, and started publishing papers, we had a very good relationship. When I finished Morehouse, he wanted me to stay at Atlanta University and get a master's degree. And I didn't see any reason why I should do that, even though my grades weren't that good. So, I had been accepted to Northwestern [Northwestern University] and Purdue [Purdue University], but couldn't go because I didn't have any money to go, and they didn't give me any assistantship. So, I moved up to Washington, D.C. [District of Columbia] because I had a cousin there, who said, "Well, with your degree in chemistry you can get a job in the federal government." So, I went around all that summer looking for jobs in the federal government. But in the process, I knew I wanted to go into physical chemistry. And I kept asking, well what's the best school for physical chemistry? And they kept saying Catholic University, which was about a mile from where I was staying with my cousin.$$I want to stop this right here and then go back. We skipped the whole Morehouse experience, which we need to get to before we get you to graduate school. And Morehouse, I mean, you were telling me when we were walking around the campus earlier with you, your roommate was Maynard Jackson, right?$$Yeah, my freshman roommate.$$Your freshman roommate. And there was another student there that people might know, another one was Charles Brown, right?$$Right.$$Who's a Reverend. You didn't have any idea that he was going to be a Reverend at the time?$$No. Let's see. There were a lot of people there. I mean there was Charles Brown, there was Maynard Jackson, there was Till, who only stayed two years. After the first two years he went back to Texas and got his undergraduate degree and became a neurosurgeon, and teaches at Howard University Medical School.$$What's his name?$$Till, T-I-L-L.$$Okay.$$Aaron Jackson was a chemistry major. He died recently, but was a urologist. He taught at Howard University. Major Owens, who was and still is a Congressman from New York. And that's only a small number of the ones that come to my mind right now.$$Now, you weren't the only early admitted student, right? So, there were other--$$One, everyone that I named was an early admitted student. There were about twenty five or thirty of us. Most of them were really smart. And a guy from Chicago by the name of Joe Carl, I remember him. I can't remember all the people in the class at this stage. But it was a pretty--in fact, there are people who say we were the most famous class at Morehouse. There were others who tried to rival us, but given the fact that out of seventy five students, the accomplishments of that class were outstanding.$$Okay. So, but there were about thirty early admitted students?$$Right. But the program continued after that. Walter Massey, who was president of Morehouse, was a couple years later. So, I mean, there were--so there were, it was a pretty distinguished class.$Now this is, you're at Goddard's Space Flight Center at the beginning of, and I guess the most publicized era for U.S. space flight?$$That's right. So I mean, it was, Goddard, NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] was getting money at that time. There were a couple of things that I did that you talked about. You asked me about astrochemistry. It was there that I started using my knowledge of chemistry and applying it to comets, which is what I was hired to do, and trying to understand the physical and chemical processes occurring in comets, and why they look the way the look, what they're made of. And so I started working on problems like that.$$How did you study the comet, I mean did you study the names of comets, or--$$Well, primarily, comets are studied by spectroscopic observation. You look at, use telescopes and measure the spectra. And spectra are the signatures for molecules in comets. And from the ground we can see signatures of free radicals like C-N, O-H, just barely. CN-OH, C-2, C-3 and N-H. That's the first clue. There's other things. You could just look at the orbits and see how the orbits change in periodic comets. And a famous scientist by the name of Fred Whipple figured out that when they evaporate material as they heat up going around the sun, that material, when you go to have a force go in one direction, it exerts in the equal and opposite direction, remembering the second law of motion. So, that slight motion changes the orbit, and if you measure it precisely, you can determine how much force was involved. And he wrote a really brilliant paper, where he used that information, and he came up with what we call the icy nucleus model. The comets are made up of frozen water with various materials inside, and when the water evaporates, it pushes back on the comet, and that's what causes this chain to orbit. And so, you look at that and you try to figure out well, then, how do free radicals come about? And we showed that they come about and that you can make sense out of it by photo association. That means light from the sun. Molecules absorb radiation from the sun and break apart. For example, water, H20, absorbs light and breaks apart H plus O-H, and we see the O-H. HCN breaks apart and gives you C-N plus H, and so forth and so on. So, I worked on those kinds of problems. I wrote a, NASA was setting up a telescope called the IUE telescope. They did ask for an ultraviolet exploratory telescope. And I used, I proposed that we could use their telescope to study the ultra violet emissions spectrum above the atmosphere of the earth, so that you could see things that you could not see from the earth.$$Now this is, correct me if I'm wrong. This is about 1974?$$The proposal was written to use a telescope, was written before that, because it takes five years to send up a satellite.$$Okay. You started, got it in '64' [1964].$$Right.$$That's ten ten years. That was in '74' [1974].$$'74' [1974]. We actually made the observations in '74' [1974], '75' [1975]. But I wrote, I was the principal investigator on the observations.$$And this is the first team to use the ultra violet explorer.$$Explorer, that's right. And the interesting thing, to me, was the astronomers who designed the telescope said we wouldn't get a big enough signal from a comet to be able to use it. But I showed that you, in fact, could do that. Because I showed them a piece of paper, and we actually made the first observations. The signal was about what I had predicted it was going to be. So, being a chemist, it felt good to prove the astronomers wrong.$$Okay. So--$$That telescope went on to make some of the most significant observations of comets.$$Okay.$$And the newer versions of the HST telescope and so forth is still making significant observations of comets.