Oral history interview with Jennie R. Patrick

  • 2006-Mar-30

Jennie R. Patrick grew up in Gadsden, a small, typically Southern, town in Alabama, the fourth of five children. Her parents were laborers whose formal education stopped in junior high school. As a child, she had no real experience of science, except that she was a curious child who always wanted to know how and why things worked. By junior high school she had decided she wanted to be a chemist. Her high school years involved forcible integration, and she was one of only eleven black students, of whom half left the white school before graduation. Jennie, however, was determined to succeed and to get the best education she could. Patrick's mother vetoed her scholarship to University of California, Berkeley, her dream school, so Patrick entered Tuskegee Institute. She later transferred to Berkeley, where, as the only black and only American woman in chemical engineering, she continued to suffer racism. She excelled anyway and decided to go to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for her ScD. There she found more black students and professors, including John Turner, who was a dean of students, and less hostility. She also found a tough and challenging atmosphere that she loved. Her advisor was Robert C. Reid, and her thesis topic dealt with nucleation phenomena. Patrick's first job was as research engineer at General Electric Research Center. Next, she became project manager at Philip Morris, working on supercritical extraction. Then she spent five years as research manager at Rohm and Haas Chemical Company in Philadelphia. She moved back south to Birmingham, Alabama, as Assistant Executive Vice President at Southern Company Services, working on increasing the efficiency of technology. She made this career change in part to enable her to care for her aging parents. She then was 3M Eminent Scholar at Tuskegee University for three years. While there she developed a mentoring program for girls in science. Five years ago, she retired from her last job, which was as technical consultant at Raytheon in Birmingham, Alabama, where she studied the education of urban children. Near the end of the interview, Patrick reflects on people who played an important role in her early education, particularly remembers Anthony Knowledges, her fifth-grade teacher, and Pinkie Bridges, her sixth-grade home room teacher. Harry Morrison at Berkeley also encouraged her and helped her get a scholarship. Patrick's entire career was in industry, but always she was always associated with a university. She found balancing her demanding career with her personal life difficult but rewarding. She is now married to her best friend. Patrick believes that her most important contribution is her work on supercritical extraction, which formed the basis for subsequent research, though being in industry did not afford her to publish many articles. When asked what she would tell aspiring chemical engineers she advises them to persevere but to be careful of their health; chemicals are dangerous. She also advises youngsters to learn from their predecessors.

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