HENRY CECIL RANSOM MCBAY Biography - Famous Scientists


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Henry Ransom Cecil McBay (1914-1995) was a chemist and a teacher.                             
McBay was born in 1914 in Mexia, Texas. His father was a barber who eventually               
became an embalmer and funeral director; his mother was a seamstress. Both                   
parents had left school after the seventh grade because there was no high school             
for African-Americans in Mexia. By the time Henry was in high school, however,               
oil had been discovered in Mexia and the quality of life of its residents had                 
improved. One result of that improvement was that a high school for African-Americans         
had opened and McBay was able to receive a good education.                                   
Because of his proficiency in math, McBay was able to gain admission to Wiley                 
College in Marshall, Texas. He paid for his education by working in the college's             
dining hall and post office. Inspired by his math and chemistry professors,                   
McBay studied organic chemistry and earned his B.S. degree in 1934. His Wiley                 
professors helped him acquire a scholarship to Atlanta to work on his next                   
With only $1.65 in his pocket, McBay immediately took a job in the Atlanta                   
University dining hall so he could eat. After only a few days on campus, his                 
faculty advisor, Professor K.A. Huggins, arranged for him to work in the                     
chemistry laboratory.                                                                         
McBay began to help Huggins study new types of plastics that had properties                   
similar to natural rubber. Soon, McBay was performing his own analysis of the                 
plastics. When the project was finished, McBay received his master's degree from             
Atlanta University and Huggins received his doctorate from the University of                 
Chicago. This indirect connection to the University of Chicago would later be                 
important to McBay's career.                                                                 
After earning his master's degree McBay returned to Wiley College so he could                 
help his younger brother and sister pay for college. However, going home                     
proved to be a disappointment. Some faculty members still thought of him as                   
their student and never accepted McBay as an academic peer. Because of his                   
devotion to his siblings, however, he remained at Wiley until his brother                     
received his college degree and his parents were able to pay for his sister's                 
In 1938 McBay took a better-paying teaching job at a Quindaro, Kansas junior                 
college. At the end of the first year, he enrolled in the University of Chicago               
summer school program, where he received good grades for that term. When he                   
returned to Quindaro, he found that the new junior college principal had, for                 
political reasons, hired an instructor in his place.                                         
McBay then moved to a high school mathematics teaching position in Huntsville,               
Texas, where he stayed for three semesters. He then joined a newly-formed                     
research team at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama assigned the task of finding a                 
suitable substitute for jute fiber. Indian shipments of jute, which was used for             
rope and fabrics for sacks, had ended due to World War I.                                     
The Tuskegee team hoped to prove that okra stems would be an effective                       
substitute, but McBay proved that, by the time an okra plant had matured, the                 
stems were too brittle. Okra could be harvested for food or for fiber, but not               
for both. Ironically, McBay had worked himself out of a job.                                 
McBay then accepted a teaching assistant’s position at the University of Chicago           
and resumed his doctoral studies. This move also kept him out of the U.S.                     
military: the government needed large numbers of chemistry graduates and was not             
drafting people in those positions. He demonstrated his love of teaching by                   
designing a chemistry course for first-year college course.                                   
In 1944 McBay chose Professor Morris Kharasch as his research advisor. He began               
to learn very specialized techniques in handling dangerous compounds. McBay                   
began to create highly explosive materials that offered great value as chemical               
building blocks. He subsequently developed new methods of producing a dangerous               
compound from hydrogen peroxide. Discoveries by McBay (and Kharasch) allowed                 
chemists around the world to create inexpensive peroxide compounds which are                 
extremely useful as building blocks in many chemical reactions. As a result of               
that research, McBay received the Elizabeth Norton for excellence in chemical                 
research in 1944 and 1945. His dissertation focused on his hydrogen peroxide                 
project, and in 1945 he received his doctoral degree from the University of                   
McBay then returned to Atlanta as an assistant professor at Morehouse College in             
Atlanta. In 1956, he was appointed chairman of the chemistry department. In 1982             
he transferred to his old school, Atlanta University, and became the Fuller E.               
Callaway Professor of Chemistry there. McBay would eventually teach for 41 years             
in the Atlanta University system (Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta).