Emmett Chappelle

Emmett Chappelle

Emmett W. Chappelle (1925-) is a scientist and researcher who made valuable contributions in several fields: medicine, biology, food science, and astrochemistry.

Early Years

Emmett Chappelle was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1925. Chappelle lived on a small farm which did not have electricity until he was twelve. He attended a one-room school for several years, but graduated from a small, segregated high school that was a part of the Phoenix Union High School District. He was the top graduate in his 25-student senior class.

Military Service/College Education

Chappelle was drafted into the army in 1942 and assigned to a special unit that focused on engineering. He was eventually transferred to Italy, where he served in an all-black infantry division. He was wounded in action twice.

After returning in 1946, Chappelle attended Phoenix College and studied electrical engineering. The GI Bill enabled him to attend the University of California at Berkeley, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in biology. Four years later, he earned a master’s degree at the University of Washington, Seattle. He also studied and worked as a research associate at Stanford University in California.

Career and Important Discoveries

From 1950 to 1953 he served as an instructor of biochemistry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. From 1955 to 1959, he was a research associate at Stanford University.

In 1958 Chappelle joined the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore, a division of the Martin Marietta Corporation which was famous for designing airplanes and spacecraft. There, Chappelle discovered that even one-celled plants such as algae, which are lightweight and can be transported easily, can convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. This discovery helped to create a safe oxygen supply for astronauts.

Chappelle went to work at Hazelton Laboratories in 1963 as a biochemist. In 1966, he joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, as a research chemist. and later became a remote sensing scientist, studying natural systems to improve environmental management. Chappelle retired from NASA in 2001.

Some of Chappelle's most interesting work was in the area of luminescence, which is light without heat. While designing instruments for the Mars Viking spacecraft, he became interested in bioluminescence, which is warm light produced by living organisms. Chappelle used two chemicals from fireflies which give off light when mixed with ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an energy storage compound found in all living cells. This could provide a method of detecting life on Mars.

Chappelle proved that the number of bacteria in drinking water can be measured by the amount of light given off by that bacteria. He also showed how satellites can monitor luminescence levels to monitor crops (growth rates, water conditions and harvest timing).

Achievements and Awards

*Received 14 U.S. patents.
*Honored as one of the 100 most distinguished African American scientists and engineers of the 20th Century.


* [https://webfiles.uci.edu/mcbrown/display/chappelle.html Brown, Mitchell. "Faces of Science: African-Americans in the Sciences."]
* [http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0775684.html Emmett W. Chapelle at Infoplease]
* Kessler, James H.; Kidd, J.S. and Renee; and Katherine Morin. "Distinguished African-American Scientists of the 20th Century". Oryx Press: Phoenix, AZ. 1996.
* [http://www.stopandshop.com/resources/pdf/profiles_in_excellence_sns.pdf "Profiles in Excellence: A Celebration of African-American Heritage", Issue 14, 2006.]

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