Brilliant Botanist, Innovative Educator

Marie Clark Taylor revolutionizes science education

Women in science have done so much to improve the world. Just think where we might be if they hadn’t been shut out of these professions for so long. 

Marie Clark Taylor left an amazing legacy: she changed the way science was taught around the world. Details about Marie Clark’s early life have been largely lost to history. We know she was born in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania in 1911 and that she moved to Washington, DC around 1920. She graduated with honors from Dunbar High School in 1929. From there, she went on to Howard University to study botany, earning both a bachelor’s degree in 1933 and a Master’s degree in 1935. Her first job was teaching science at Cardozo High School. 

While teaching, she enrolled in Fordham University’s PhD program. She became a member of The Scientific Research Honor Society, Sigma Xi. The society was incredibly unique in its acceptance of women very early in its existence. Founded in 1886 at Cornell University, by the following year, the group had given five women full membership. Such acceptance was rare, if not unheard of, at that time.  

At Fordham, Marie’s research focused on photomorphogenesis, which is how light influences the growth of plants. What she was really curious about was what caused plants to stop growing their stems and leaves and begin sprouting flowers.

Her thesis, “The influence of definite photoperiods upon the growth and development of initiated floral primordia,” compared the development of scarlet sage flowers when exposed to different lengths of daylight. She exposed one group of plants to six hours of daylight, one group to ten hours, and another to sixteen hours. 

She discovered that ten hours produced the tallest flower clusters and the most flowers. In the six-hour group, the flower stems were about half that height. The sixteen-hour group fared the worst: they tended to have the shortest stems and didn’t produce any flowers unless they were put in the ten-hour group first, then moved to the sixteen-hour group. Marie hand-drew all of the graphs in her paper. 

In 1941, she received her PhD in botany, cum laude, sealing her place in history as the first Black woman in the US to earn such a degree and the first woman of any race to obtain a scientific doctorate from Fordham University. At this point, there were only about a dozen Black women PhDs in the US. The first had come two decades before Marie, in June 1921, when three Black women earned PhDs within nine days of each other.

Turns out 1941 was a good year for Black women doctorates in America: It was also the year Ruth Lloyd became the first Black woman to earn a PhD in anatomy and Merze Tate became the first Black woman to earn a PhD in government and international relations, and from Harvard University’s Radcliffe College no less (Tate was also the first Black woman to attend the University of Oxford).

Soon, she became a professor back at Howard University. When World War II broke out, Marie decided to serve in the American Red Cross, and was sent to assist civilians and allied forces in New Guinea. It was here that a fellow American serving alongside her, Richard Clark, sparked her interest. After the war ended, she was back at Howard again. 

In 1947, she was named chair of the botany department at Howard University. It was a position she held until she retired in 1976. (Merze Tate was a history professor at Howard during this period.) Among her students, Marie’s dedication to teaching was storied. Marie was instrumental in expansion of the school’s science departments, helping to oversee the design and construction of a new biology building on campus. She saw to the inclusion of a large botanical greenhouse laboratory on the roof of the building.

In January 1948, Marie and Richard got married. They had one child together, a son born in 1950. She actually arranged the delivery of her baby to occur after final exams had taken place.  

Marie made an incredible, long-lasting impact on science education in the US, not only through her leadership at Howard, but by the summer science institutes she created to train high school biology teachers. She was keen to open their eyes to new methods of teaching science. Among her chief goals was getting teachers to use the innovative methods she’d developed to study living cells: using light microscopes and botanical plant matter, rather than animal specimens, since they were less expensive and kinder. Marie didn’t see any reason why these methods couldn’t be utilized earlier than at the college level.

To help expand her training reach, she successfully applied to the National Science Foundation for grants. With those funds she created instructional films teachers across the country could access. They covered topics like plant growth and notable scientists in history: there were time-lapse videos documenting the growth of plants and biographies of researchers like Louis Pasteur.

Around the mid-’60s, president Lyndon B. Johnson became aware of Marie’s work. He asked her to expand her teacher training efforts further across the country, and even take them worldwide. With her dedication and ingenuity, Marie had improved the delivery of science education across the globe, reaching countless students whom she’d never even meet.

One of Marie’s colleagues, Margaret Strickland Collins, described her as “a powerhouse who worked tirelessly to improve teacher training in the sciences.” Marie died on December 28, 1990.

Further Reading:

Fordham's First Female Ph.D,” The Fordham Ram, by Kate Quinlisk, September 20, 2017.

From High School Biology Teacher to Trailblazing Scientist: Remembering Fordham Alumna Marie Clark Taylor,” Fordham News, by Sierra McCleary-Harris, March 25, 2021.

More about me:

Order my book: Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine, out March 2, 2021 from HarperCollins/Park Row Books.

Buy a *signed* hardback copy online at Newtown Bookshop.