Listen to this article here
The scientific research of Emmett Chappelle and the 14 United States patents he received for his inventions have made Chapelle’s contributions vital to the scientific world.
Due to a multitude of racist systemic barriers that allowed many of our ancestors’ existence to be bypassed, much about Chappelle’s earlier life cannot be ascertained.
Early Life, Education and Military Service
Emmett Chappelle was born on October 24, 1925, in Phoenix, Arizona, to Viola White Chappelle and Isom Chappelle. His family farmed cotton and cows on a small farm. As a child, he enjoyed exploring the desert environment of Arizona and learning about nature.
After graduating from Phoenix Union Colored High School in 1942, Chappelle later drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program, where he took some engineering courses.
Chappelle was later reassigned to serve in Italy with the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division. After returning to the United States, he went on to study electrical engineering and earn his associate’s degree from Phoenix College. He then earned a B.S. in biology from the University of California at Berkeley.
Remarkably, without graduate training, he then worked as an instructor of biochemistry for three years at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1953 he enrolled at the University of Washington where he pursued advanced degrees.
Chappelle earned a Master’s in Science with a focus on biochemistry in 1954 but never completed a Ph.D.
Career in Biochemistry and Patents
Instead Emmett Chappelle worked for various companies as a biochemist and, during that period, received the first of the 14 U.S patents.
By 1966, Chappelle was employed at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) where he was an exobiologist (someone who engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life and the effects of extraterrestrial surroundings on living organisms) and astrochemist (the chemistry of astronomical objects and interstellar space).
In 1977, Chappelle went on to work for the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a scientific analyst responsible for monitoring remote sensing devices.
Emmett Chappelle Scientific Discoveries
Some of his work includes the detection of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an important compound in all living organisms. Through the patented method he developed, exobiologists are able to more speedily detect bacteria outside the earth’s atmosphere.
Scientists consider the presence of bacteria strong evidence for extraterrestrial life.
Chappelle also discovered a method for determining the health of forest vegetation. His method measures the amount of fluorescence over a forest and monitors the amount of photosynthesis in a selected area.
Through his studies of this phenomenon, he demonstrated that bacteria in water emit measurable amounts of light, correlating with their quantity.
He also showed how satellites can measure luminescence levels to monitor the health of crops (growth rates, water conditions, and harvest timing) and enhance food production.
Emmett Chappelle was the first person to identify the chemical composition of bioluminescence (the emission of light by living organisms).
Chappelle used two chemicals produced by fireflies—luciferase and luciferin—to develop a technique for detecting adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an organic compound found in all living organisms:
“You start out with the fire fly which you have to obtain by the way. Either you catch it yourself or you pay the little kids to run around catching them for you. Then you bring them into the lab. You chop off their tails, grind them up and get a solution out of these ground-up tails…You add adenosine triphosphate to that mixture and you get light.”
Chappelle also produced more than 35 peer-reviewed scientific or technical publications and nearly 50 conference papers and co-authored or edited numerous publications.
Emmett Chappelle Publications and Awards
Chappelle earned an Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA for his work. He was a member of the American Chemical Society, the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the American Society of Photobiology, the American Society of Microbiology, and the American Society of Black Chemists.
Throughout his career, he mentored talented Black and Brown high school and college students in his laboratories.
In 2007, the National Inventors Hall of Fame inducted Chappelle for his work on bioluminescence. He often appears on lists of the most important scientists of the 20th century.
Emmett Chappelle retired in 2001.
He passed from renal failure at his home in Baltimore on October 14, 2019.