Gary Krenz in LSA Magazine cited Randall and Imes for publishing in 1919 a single work that ushered in a new field of research, “the study of molecular structure through the use of high-resolution infrared spectroscopy. Their work revealed for the first time the detailed spectra of simple-molecule gases, leading to important verification of the emerging quantum theory and providing, for the first time, an accurate measurement of the distances between atoms in a molecule.”Letter from a Former Student of Bouchet – sent to Dr. Ronald E. Mickens, Associate Professor of Physics at Fisk University
Elmer Samuel Imes (1883-1941)
Physicist Elmer S. Imes, an internationally recognized early authority on infrared spectroscopy, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 12, 1883, the son of Benjamin Imes, a minister, and the former Elizabeth Wallace, an ex-slave. Both of his parents were alumni of Oberlin College in Ohio and worked as missionaries in the South. Imes attended high school in Alabama and in 1903 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general science from historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He remained in academe, teaching physics and mathematics at the Georgia Normal and Agricultural Institute in Albany, Georgia, (present-day Albany State University) and the Emerson Institute in Mobile, Alabama, both historically black schools of higher learning in the racially segregated South.
In 1910, Imes returned to Fisk to teach and earned his master’s degree there in science in 1915. With a strong inclination for research, he enrolled at the University of Michigan and, with the assistance of a University Fellowship, earned his doctorate in physics in 1918, only the second African American to do so since Edward Bouchet, at Yale University in 1876. His dissertation, titled “Measurements on the Near-Infrared Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases,” was published in 1919 in the renowned Astrophysical Journal. That same year, Imes and his former academic mentor at Michigan, Harrison A. Randall, shook the scientific world with a co-authored paper in Physical Review, titled “The Fine Structure of the Near Infra-Red Absorption Bands of HCI, HBr, and HF.” It elaborated on the journal article by offering the first confirmation of the distances between atoms in molecules, widening the breath of appropriate applications of quantum theory, and presented evidence of two chlorine isotopes—finding that would be repeated cited by scientists and soon contained in textbooks.
In 1919, Imes married the novelist Nella Larsen, one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, which prompted a change in his residence from Jersey City, New Jersey to New York City, New York to rub shoulders with Harlem’s intellectual elite, among them W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. Despite his scientific achievements, Imes found it difficult to find employment in white-dominated schools and businesses, but he eventually landed researcher positions in the New Jersey-New York region at the Federal Engineers Development Corporation, the Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation, Everett Signal Supplies, and served as a consultant to Autoxygen, Incorporated. During his eight years of work in the corporate world between 1922 and 1930, Imes filed numerous patents, four of which were for instruments that gauged magnetic and electric properties. Imes may have been better known and respected among European physicists who were unaware of his race than by white American physicists.
Imes returned to Fisk in 1930, this time to mentor black students who would succeed in obtaining graduate degrees at major universities and to become chairman of Fisk’s Department of Physics. Divorced from Nella Larsen in 1933 and later plagued by professional, financial, and health problems, he died from throat cancer in Memorial Hospital in New York City on September 11, 1941.
Read more about Elmer Samuel Imes
National Society of Black Physicists: Specifically, his (Elmer Imes’] work was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules giving way to the study molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy. This work led to him being the first African-American to be published in a physics journal in the United States.
Physics Today – The life and work of Elmer Samuel Imes by Ronald E. Mickens 2018: Imes’s measurements provided accurate experimental proof that rotational energy was quantized, and he was quickly recognized as a major figure among the small group of researchers focused on spectroscopy. In 1974 Earle Plyler, a US physicist and pioneer in the fields of IR spectroscopy and molecular spectroscopy, wrote that:
“up until the work of Imes, there was doubt about the universal applicability of the quantum theory to radiation in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some held it was useful only for atomic spectra (electronic spectra); some held that it was applicable for all electromagnetic radiation…. Imes’s work formed a turning point in the scientific thinking, making it clear that quantum theory was not just a novelty, useful in limited fields of physics, but of widespread and general application.”
Letter From a Former Student of Bouchet: Appendix C Elmer Samuel Imes Scientist, Inventor, Teacher, Scholar: Elmer Samuel Imes was the first black scientist to make a significant contribution to physics. His work had a major impact on the understanding and interpretation of quantum phenomena during the period from 1919 to 1925. He also made contributions to physics instrumentation through his construction and improvements to infrared spectrometers. During his lifetime, his research was extensively quoted and referenced in leading scientific journals in the United States and Europe by physicists and chemists studying the properties and molecular spectra of diatomic molecules.