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Samuel Massie quit once, but he endured

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Knowing when to persist and when to walk is one of the trickier decisions leaders face. Samuel Massie had to do both during his career as a leading American chemist.

Persisting. Massie’s pursuit of advanced studies in chemistry made him a pioneer in developing cancer chemotherapy and treatments for mental disorders. But Massie endured hardships along the way.

Starting his doctoral studies in organic chemistry at Iowa State University in 1941, the university banished the black graduate student to an abandoned basement lab. But he was the first to pass the qualifying exams.

As an officer in the Oklahoma Academy of Science, Massie found himself certifying his fellow members for reduced-rate hotel rooms, while he, the only black member, was denied a room. He protested and was housed in a closet.

Walking. Even trailblazers can find themselves in no-win situations. Massie ran into one as president of North Carolina College in Durham. The trustees brought him in over the heads of several people who wanted the job.

The disgruntled faculty opposed Massie’s decisions at every turn. Finally, Massie left North Carolina to become the first black professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he taught for 27 years.

In 1998, Chemical and Engineering News named him one of the top 75 chemists of the 20th century, along with Marie Curie and George Eastman.

Massie died in April at age 85.

Often asked what it felt like to be “the first,” Massie would say: “I was not afraid to be in a place where blacks had not been welcomed, accepted or expected because I made sure that I was qualified wherever I went.”

— Adapted from Catalyst: The Autobiography of an American Chemist, Samuel P. Massie with Robert C. Hayden, National Science Foundation, U.S. Naval Academy.

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