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Dr. Dolores Shockley, first Black woman to get a Ph.D. in pharmacology in U.S., dies at 90

Dr. Dolores Shockley, first Black woman to get a Ph.D. in pharmacology in U.S., dies at 90

Dr Dolores Cooper Shockley, the first Black woman to receive a doctorate degree in pharmacology in the United States, died Saturday, 31st November 2020 in Nashville. She was 90. Shockley lived a trailblazing life. Her perseverance led her from the Deep South to Purdue University in Indiana where she graduated at 25 years old with her Ph.D. in pharmacology.

Born in Mississippi in 1930, she was relentless about achieving her goals, conquering racism and handling it with grace. Shockley grew up in a segregated society in the small rural town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, where at the time black and white children attended different schools. Shockley said in an interview that her school in Clarksdale had very few school supplies and that she learned her science from chemistry sets at home. Motivated by the lack of a drug store to serve the black community in Clarksdale, Shockley decided to pursue a degree in pharmacology during college with the initial idea of starting a pharmacy in her hometown, but eventually ended up in research studies, culminating in a PhD.

After obtaining her PhD she joined the faculty at the historically black school Meharry Medical College where she subsequently became the first black woman to chair a Pharmacology department in the United States in 1988. Her research contributions included studying the effects of chemical pollutants on the brain and identifying pharmacological agents that interact with drugs of abuse such as cocaine. She was a distinguished scholar and emeritus professor at Meharry Medical Collage.

In an interview in 2009, Shockley commented, “I encountered both social and academic challenges. I had a few racist professors whom I tuned out because I was committed to and passionate about my education. I was not going to be deterred nor be a disappointment to myself, my family, and my undergraduate university (Xavier, LA) where I had graduated number one in my class.

The community was something that I could not control. I grew up in Mississippi, an infamous state known for the Emmitt Till debacle and the civil rights martyrs who were killed by the Klan. In Mississippi, as most Southern states, discrimination and segregation were overt. There were signs in bold letters—WHITE and COLORED. In West Lafayette, discrimination was covert and insidious. There were no signs—just a refusal to serve you or to rent you a room. This was extremely hurtful because you never knew when you would be rejected or refused. I went to my room and cried several times. But my zealous commitment to succeed propelled me to work harder to overcome my lack of prior experience.”

“At the time that I attended Purdue, there was discrimination at the University and even more so, in the community. I was a teaching assistant while working on my M.S. degree. My major professor had this ingenious plan to put me out of sight by assigning me to assist Dr. John Christian with revising his chemistry textbook. When Dean Glenn Jenkins discovered this, he immediately ordered that I be assigned to the undergrad labs with other pharmacology graduate students. Black male students could not get haircuts at the Student Union. A group of black students (including me) petitioned President Hovde to remove this restriction, which he did. Dissatisfied with the racial conditions in the community, I joined a "Panel of Americans" group which consisted of a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), a Catholic, a Jew, an Asian American, and a black student. This group visited churches and organizations in West Lafayette to tell them about ourselves and answer questions. The purpose was to let them know that we, too, were Americans. I believe or hope that that we dispelled in some the fallacy of racial, ethnic and religious inferiority.”

Dolores Shockley will always be remembered for her humble and loving spirit. She loved her children and grandchildren and encouraged them in all they did. She believed in never giving up and being your best self in whatever your goals and aspirations are in life. Her inspirational quote, "Aim for the stars, spread your wings and fly. You never know what is possible until you try." 

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