Carolyn Beatrice Parker, ca. 1949
Carolyn Beatrice Parker MS '51 graduated magna cum laude with BA from Fisk University (1938), where she later became an assistant professor in physics. After her undergraduate studies, she went on to earn an MS in mathematics from University of Michigan (1941) and an MS in physics from MIT (1951), with a Master's thesis titled "Range distribution of 122 Mev (pi⁺) and (pi⁻) mesons in brass" (1953).
She is considered the first African-American to earn a postgraduate degree in physics, as well as the first African-American to earn a postgraduate degree in physics at MIT. Despite finishing coursework for her PhD in physics at MIT, illness prevented Parker from completing her doctoral program. At age 48, she died from leukemia, likely a result of her research work with the Manhattan Project during the mid-1940s.
Parker's father was Julius A. Parker, the second African-American to receive a PhD in business from Harvard. Her mother, Della Ella Murrell Parker, was a sister of Joan Murrell Owens, a marine biologist and among the first African-American women to receive a PhD in geology. Parker was one of six children, all but one of whom received natural science or mathematics degrees. Prior to earning her postgraduate degrees, Parker briefly taught in public schools throughout Florida, Virginia, and at a college in West Virginia.
From 1943 to 1947, Parker was a research physicist on the Dayton Project, at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Project was part of the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons in World War II, and continuing into the Cold War. The Monsanto Chemical Company led top-secret research work on using polonium as the initiator for atomic explosions. According to her sister, Juanita Parker Wynter, Parker's work there was "so secret she couldn't discuss it, even with us, her family".
Towards the end of time of her time on the Dayton Project, from 1946 to 1947, Parker undertook further studies at Ohio State University. In 1947, she became an assistant professor of physics at Fisk University in Tennessee, before her studies at MIT.
Parker's family report that she died of leukemia, which they believe was radiation-induced. Leukemia is regarded as a risk of occupational polonium exposure. Workers on the Dayton Project had weekly tests for polonium excretion. Her family also report that she had completed the course work for her PhD in physics at MIT around 1952 or 1953, but leukemia prevented her from defending her dissertation.
She died in her hometown of Gainesville, Florida on March 3, 1966. Parker was a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers, the American Physical Society, Sigma Upsilon Pi, and Delta Sigma Theta.