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Samuel Milton Nabrit Biography

Selected writings


Biologist, educator, university president

A celebrated marine biologist who specialized in studying the ability of fish to regrow their fins after injury or disease, Samuel Nabrit was the first black representative on the United States Atomic Energy Commission. In a long career, Nabrit found success on many fronts. He was the first alumnus of Morehouse College to receive a doctorate and the first black to be awarded a Ph.D. at Brown University. He served on various committees under three United States presidents and as president of Texas Southern University he steered the institution through many years of civil rights protests and change. Commenting late in life on the difficulties he experienced in advancing his own career, Nabrit is reported to have said that "no kite can rise unless it's going against the wind."

Born on February 21, 1905, in Macon, Georgia, Samuel Milton Nabrit was the son of James M. Nabrit, a Baptist minister and teacher, and Augusta G. West. He was one of eight children, all of whom received a college education; his brother James became president of Howard University. Nabrit attended schools in Macon and received his bachelor's degree in biology from Morehouse College in 1925. Nabrit was hired as an instructor in zoology at Morehouse in the same year and taught there until 1931; he was made professor of biology in 1928, the same year as he married Constance Crocker. At the same time he attended Brown University, where he was awarded an M.S. in 1928 and a Ph.D. in biology in 1932. He was the first African American to be awarded a Ph.D. at Brown and the first Morehouse graduate to receive a doctorate. He later became Brown University's first black trustee, serving between 1967 and 1972.

Nabrit's doctoral research was conducted at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he studied the ability of fish to regenerate their fins after injury. He continued his research after becoming chairman of the biology department at Atlanta University in 1932, and the scientific papers he published during this period remained influential in the field until well into the 1980s. He became dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Atlanta in 1947, where he stayed until 1955, when he became the second president of Texas Southern University. Besides being a committed researcher Nabrit was also a keen sportsman, playing baseball and football while he was at college, but excelling at the game of bridge, which he played regularly in competitions until the 1940s.

From his earliest days as a researcher Nabrit was committed to encouraging more black students to stay on at college and pursue advanced research. After moving to Texas, Nabrit was involved in the Upward Bound program, a scheme to encourage scholarship winners to stay in college beyond their first year. In his eleven years at Texas Southern University Nabrit attracted a great deal of outside funding and more than doubled the enrollment of black students. As university president he also supported students in their successful protests against segregation in public buildings in Houston, declaring that no student would be expelled for civil rights activities while he was president of the university. He also encouraged black students who had been expelled from other colleges to move to Texas Southern. At the same time he worked with the protesters to prevent violence and managed to persuade white local businessmen and politicians that he was doing all he could to control the protests. Nabrit was not afraid of confrontation, however, and was respected for his strong sense of integrity. He is reputed to have fired the coach of Texas Southern's acclaimed track team when he learned that students were being recruited for their sporting prowess alone. When he left Texas Southern to join the Atomic Energy Commission in 1966 he was involved in a dispute with the university's board of regents over the amount of influence they had on university policy.

Nabrit dedicated his life to public service, sitting on many committees and boards, including a period as president of the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and various government committees. From 1956 until 1962 Nabrit served on President Eisenhower's National Science Board and was then selected by President Kennedy to be the United States representative to Niger. In 1966 President Johnson asked him to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission and he became the first black to do so. In 1967 Nabrit became director of the Southern Fellowships Fund, an organization he founded to support and mentor black students studying for doctorates. He continued to work for the fund until his retirement in 1981. In 1985 Brown University established the Nabrit Fellowship to assist graduate students from minority groups and in 1999 Nabrit was once again was honored by Brown University with a portrait hanging in Sayles Hall, alongside portraits of the university's most distinguished faculty. Nabrit died of a heart attack following a bout of pneumonia on December 30, 2003, at the age of 98.

Selected writings


"The Role of the Fin Rays in Tailfins of Fishes Fundulus and Goldfish," Biological Bulletin, April 1929.

"Human Ecology in Georgia," Science Education, October 1944.

"The Negro in Science," Negro History Bulletin, January 1957.

At a Glance …

Born Samuel Milton Nabrit on February 21, 1905, in Macon, Georgia; died December 30, 2003; married Constance Crocker, August 8, 1927. Education: Morehouse College, BS, biology, 1925; Brown University, MS, 1928, PhD, 1932. Religion: Baptist.

Career: Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, instructor in zoology, 1925-27; Morehouse College, professor of biology, 1928-31; Atlanta University, professor of biology, 1932-55; Atlanta University, dean of graduate school, 1947-55; University of Brussels, Belgium, research fellow, 1950; Texas Southern University, president, 1955-66; appointed member of United States Atomic Energy Commission, 1966-67; Southern Fellowship Fund, Atlanta, GA, executive director, 1967-81.

Memberships: American Society of Zoologists; Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences; National Association for Research in Science Teaching; National Institute of Science (president 1945); Societe d'honneur Francaise; Society for Developmental Biology; Phi Beta Kappa.

Awards: Brown University, William Rogers Award.



Jet, January 26, 2004.

New York Times, January 6, 2004, p. B8


"Conversation with President Lyndon B. Johnson," Scripps Library Presidential Recordings (sound recording), millercenter.virginia.edu/scripps/diglibrary/prezrecordings/johnson/1966/06_1966.html (August 24, 2004).

"Always a Smile, Always in Control. Farewell: Samuel M. Nabrit '32 PhD," Brown Alumni Magazine Online, brownalumnimagazine.com/storydetail.cfm?ID=2321 (August 24, 2004).

"Samuel Nabrit," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (August 24, 2004).

"Samuel Nabrit, Scientist and Scholar," University Faculty Voice, www.facultyvoice.com/News/news2004/01-January/Obituary.html (August 24, 2004).


Sammons, Vivian O., Blacks in Science and Technology, Beta Kappa Chi, text of citation, April 30, 1980.

—Chris Routledge

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