Dr Reatha Clark King said it was ‘hard work, education, training and working as a research chemist’ plus the initial push from family, neighbours, teachers and school. church to do something on her own, which has prepared her with the skills and confidence to succeed, not only professionally, but in life with all that she does.
Dr. King was born in Bon Pavo, Georgia in 1936. She grew up on a sharecropper’s farm in a small rural town in Moultrie, Georgia. When she and her sister were around 9 or 10 years old, they started working on the farm.
Dr King said: “Field work was hard work for cotton picking, but the harder you worked, the more you earned. This experience taught me how to work well with others and created a great work ethic and a strong desire in me to always do my best. This is the approach I brought to science.
At church, Dr. King sang in the choir and attended Sunday school. “The whole community was always telling the kids to do something with your life. They wanted us to have more opportunities and to do better than them,” she said.
Dr King said there was “absolutely no encouragement” for black girls to pursue careers in science. After graduating from high school as a class valedictorian, she attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. “In society at that time,” Dr. King recalls, “young black women were only expected to specialize in home economics. With this degree, you could teach high school or become a nurse.
During Dr. King’s second semester in 1955, she met Dr. Alfred S. Spriggs, chair of the chemistry department at Clark College, who encouraged her to consider chemistry. He told her about his options for more opportunities and pay.
She said she “heard of George Washington Carver and developed an interest in the idea. I did further research afterwards and decided to change my major from home economics to chemistry.
Dr. King graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry with highest honor from Clark College in 1958. She entered the University of Chicago that year after receiving the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for her graduate studies. She graduated in 1960 with a master’s degree in chemistry. Dr. King has completed her Ph.D. in chemistry in 1962.
“For a PhD,” Dr. King said, “you have to do original research that would add to the body of knowledge. You are expected to produce an invention or design. If you invent something, you can’t apply for a patent, but you must at least design it.
From 1963 to 1968, Dr. King worked as a research chemist at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), on a project team that studied the heat formed from gaseous fluorine compounds.
“I would melt solids and look for the mixture of molten salts and gases that were released,” Dr King said. “Fluorine is an element and is a gas. At NBS, I researched the heat formed by fluorine mixed with gases.
The findings of Dr. King and the project team have been published in numerous journals and contributed to the success of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) space program. Dr King explained: “Thermochemical research involves the study of heat applied to objects and their chemical reactions. Molten salts are things like sodium chloride, table salt, and other solids.
“High temperatures will melt solids where you can study the mixing of molten solids or salts. When you melt metals, they flow like lava. You can then measure the heat of the molten salts. You can combine molten salts into alloys, i.e. the mixture of metal.
Dr. King’s work helped make the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. She designed a special device to measure the heat of rocket fuel systems. She studied oxygen difluoride, a highly toxic combustible compound. Based on its research, NASA used this compound in the fuel system of the Apollo 11 space mission.
Dr. King taught chemistry at York College in New York from 1968 to 1977. She also served there as Associate Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and Dean of Academic Affairs. In 1977, she earned a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University. Dr. King did all of this while being married and raising two young children.
Later that year, Dr. King was hired as president of Metropolitan State College in St. Paul, Minnesota. From 1988 to May 31, 2002, she was President and Executive Director of the General Mills Foundation and Vice President of General Mills, Inc. From June 2002 to May 31, 2003, she served as Chair of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
She has also worked with the Governance Board of Organizations, a working body made up of directors of nonprofit organizations. As a philanthropist, she served as Senior Advisor to the Board of Foundations.
Dr King said: ‘Being a research chemist will relate to other areas of one’s life. Being a scientist prepares you for life and leads you to do high quality work.