(June 22, 1917—October 14, 1969)
African-American Iowa State doctoral student, plant physiologist, zoologist, pharmacologist, multiple research award winner, faculty member at five colleges and universities.
Marion Antoinette Richards Myles was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 22, 1917, a daughter of Alfred A. Richards and Helen Richards. Her father was a Bermudan immigrant and worked on the Philadelphia wharves. Sometime before she was 13 years old, Marion was adopted by another African-American couple, George and Mary Peterson of Philadelphia. Marion finished high school while living with the Peterson family which included four other children, but she retained the Richards family name.
Upon high school graduation, Marion attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with a BS degree in education in 1937. She then attended Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated in 1939 with an MS degree in biology. Her master's thesis was entitled, A Study of Growth Curvatures in the Coleoptile of Rye. The object of the study was to determine how plant hormones cause the elongation of cells in the protective shoot tips of grass or cereal plants and how those hormones regulate plant growth.
Richards's academic career began at Philander Smith College, a historically private black liberal arts college in Little Rock, Arkansas. She headed the biology department there from 1941 to 1943. After this brief stint, she decided to enroll in a doctoral program at Iowa State College (now University). She won a research fellowship in plant physiology to attend Iowa State. At that time Jessie Jarue Mark, the first African-American and the first woman to earn a PhD at Iowa State in 1935, was teaching botany there. It is likely that Richards took some courses from Dr. Mark. Richards received her PhD in plant physiology from Iowa State in 1945. Her doctoral dissertation was entitled, Relations of Hormones to Correlation in Maize. It was a study of the production or activation of growth hormones in plant tip shoots of grasses and cereal plants. Her study focused especially on the relationships between the changes in hormone output and the shift in growth stages of these plants at and following the time of emergence. The study also focused on the changes in hormone production as plants age.
Following her graduation from Iowa State, Dr. Richards taught various classes in biology, botany, agronomy, and zoology at different educational institutions over the next 24 years. She immediately went to Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University) in Nashville and was associate professor of biology from 1945 to 1948 and then associate professor of agronomy there from 1948 to 1951. While in the agronomy department in 1951, she studied radioisotopes at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in order to further studies in plant nutrition and photosynthesis.
While working at Tennessee A & I, she met and married Frank J. Myles in Nashville. Frank was an art teacher in the segregated school system in Nashville. He had also been a supervisor of writing and drawing in the Nashville school system. They had no children.
In 1951, Dr. Myles left Tennessee A & I to become professor of botany and zoology and acting head of the science division at Fort Valley State College (now Fort Valley State University), a historically black college in Fort Valley, Georgia. In 1953-1954, she took on the duties of professor of botany and head of the combined Division of Science and Mathematics there. While at Fort Valley, she was awarded a Carnegie Research Grant (1952-1954) for the study of the relationship between chemical structure and biological activity of certain organic compounds.
In 1959, Dr. Myles returned to Nashville and was appointed research associate in enzymology at Vanderbilt University and worked there for the next six years.
Dr. Myles made news stories in 1965 when she was named assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She was the first African-American to be employed by the university, and it was controversial at the time. Some of the members of the Board of Trustees objected to her selection because of her race, but the school faced the loss of federal funding under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and to conform to the new law, Dr. Myles was hired. She worked there until her death in 1969.
Dr. Myles was a member of a number of professional organizations. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, originally established by African-American college women. Dr. Myles presented a program on “Botany as a Career” and talks on the work of botanists at the national convention in 1959. She was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Society of Plant Physiologists, the Botany Society of America, the Society of Pharmacology, the National Education Association, Sigma Delta Epsilon (for graduate women in science), Phi Kappa Phi (multidisciplinary honor society), and Beta Kappa Chi (honor society in pure and applied science.)
Dr. Marion Antoinette Richards Myles died on October 14, 1969 and was interred in Nashville National Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee next to her husband, Frank, who had died the year before.
Archival information on Dr. Marion Antoinette Richards Myles can be found in RS 21/7/1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University.
Secondary sources include
Wini Warren, Black Women Scientists in the United States. Bloomington, IN. Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 203-204
Catherine Hillenbrand, “Myles, Marion Antoinette Richards (1917-1969),” in The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed at BlackPast.Org.
Encyclopedic sources include: Atlanta University Bulletin, Series III. Number 30, April,1940, Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia, p. 54 (online); The Bulletin. Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College. Volume 36, Number 1, March, 1948, p. 11 (online); Leaders in American Science. 1st Edition, 1953-1954. Nashville, TN. “Who's Who in American Education,” p. 495; Julius H. Taylor et.al., The Negro in Science. Baltimore, MD. Morgan State College Press, 1955, p. 179; American Men of Science, 11th Edition, 1966, pp. 3816-3817; and Vivian Ovelton Sammons, Blacks in Science and Medicine. New York. Hemisphere Publishing Company, 1990, p. 179.
Dr. Myles's master's thesis can be found online at Richards, Marion Antoinette, “A Study of Growth Curvatures in the Coleoptile of Rye,” (1939). ETD Collection for AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library. Paper 2635.
Her doctoral dissertation can be found at Richards, Marion Antoinette, “Relations of Hormones to Correlation in Maize,” (1945). Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. 15142. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/rtd/15142.
Other sources include The Crisis, Volume 37, Number 3, March, 1930, p. 97; Marianna W. Davis (ed.), “Plant Physiologist,” in Contributions of Black Women in America. Volume 2. Columbia, SC. S. C. Kenday Press, 1982, pp. 431-432; and Diann Jordan, Sisters in Science: Conversations with Black Women Scientists about Race, Gender, and Their Passion for Science. West Lafayette, IN. Purdue University Press, 2006, p. 30.
Other online sources include Gloria Harper Dickinson (consulting editor), The Ivy Leaf, 1921-1988: A Chronicle of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.
Also, information from the 1920, 1930, and 1940 U. S. Census; U. S. Veterans' Gravesites, ca. 1775-2006; and Find a Grave Index, 1600's-Current can be found at ancestryinsitution.com.