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Ralph Gardner-Chavis

ChemistChicago, IL

African-AmericanManhattan Project VeteranScientist
Ralph Gardner-Chavis. Image courtesy of

Ralph Alexander Gardner-Chavis (1922-) is a chemist and pioneer of hard plastics who worked at the University of Chicago’s Met Lab during the Manhattan Project.

After earning a degree in chemistry, Gardner-Chavis began work on the Manhattan Project in 1943 as a research assistant at the University of Chicago’s Met Lab. He worked closely with atomic scientist Enrico Fermi and radioactivity scientist Nathan Sugarman, focusing primarily on classified plutonium research critical to the development of the “Fat Man” implosion bomb.


Later Years

After he left the Project in 1947, despite his contributions to atomic research and development, Gardner-Chavis was unable to find an academic or professional position in his field, so he worked as a waiter for two years. In 1949, he became a research chemist and project leader for Standard Oil Company in Cleveland, Ohio where he designed chemical processes to refine gasoline for nearly twenty years. He simultaneously earned a Masters and Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University.

Gardner-Chavis went on to lead Cleveland State University’s Chemistry Department, where he taught full-time from 1968 to 1985. There, he became a champion for African American students and pushed for the integration of multi-racial courses in the curriculum. Later, he began employment at Molecular Technology Corporation where he served on the Board of Directors and eventually became Vice President of Research. 

Dr. Gardner-Chavis currently serves as Associate Professor Emeritus at the Cleveland State University Chemistry Department, where he continues his research in catalysis and molecular technology.

Known throughout most of his life as Ralph Alexander Gardner, he added the “Chavis” surname late in his career in recognition of his alleged distant relative John Chavis, who in 1792 was among the first African Americans to study at Princeton University.

Ralph Gardner-Chavis's Timeline
1922 Dec 3rd Born in Cleveland, Ohio.
1943 Graduated with a BS degree in Chemistry from the University of Illinois School of Chemistry.
1952 Earned an MA degree in Chemistry from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio.
1959 Received a Ph.D in chemistry in from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio.
2001 Became a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).
19431947 Worked on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago’s Met Lab.
19681985 Taught at and Led Cleveland State University’s Chemistry Department.

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