Remembering Dr. Henry T. Sampson, Jr.

Paula Small
May 3, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: In this nuclear power plant diagram, the reactor building and vessel serve as means to shield the nuclear reactor. Sampson's gamma-electric cell assisted in this shielding process. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1934, Dr. Henry T. Sampson, Jr. was born in Jackson, MI to Henry T. Sampson and Esther Ellis Sampson-Marshall. [1] From a young age, his parents were adamant about supporting his academic pursuits, as they themselves were involved in the education system. [1] His father's position as a Mathematics professor and Dean, along with his mother's career as a social worker and the executive director of Head Start, was foundation enough to inspire his lifelong interests and career in STEM. [2]

Education and Career

Primary and Secondary Education

Outside of the Sampson household, his elementary and middle school experiences at the "Laboratory School" in Savannah, GA became his first environment for formal education. [2] His second was split between Tougaloo and Lanier High Schools in Jackson, MI. Though he started high school in Tougaloo, he decided to transfer to Lanier for more advanced courses in math and science. [2] By the time he graduated, he, and his teachers, had taken note of his knack for science and engineering.

Morehouse College, 1951-1953

Holding true to the educational trajectory of his father and uncle, Sampson decided to matriculate into Morehouse as a pre-med majoring in chemistry and minoring in mathematics and biology. [2] Despite the difficulty of such a track, he found himself excelling. During his sophomore year, though, his path shifted when he met a Chemical Engineering graduate of Purdue University at a senior job fair. [2]

Purdue University, 1953-1956

The conversation he'd had with the Purdue graduate was influential enough for Sampson to transfer and begin pursuing a degree in Chemical Engineering in the fall of 1953. [2] He found out soon enough that earning the degree wouldn't be easy. Not only was he the only Black student in the class, the classes were more challenging than he'd ever experienced. [2] By the Spring of 1956, though, he'd persevered through all of the course work, graduated, and began interview for jobs. Unfortunately, most of which weren't open to hiring a Black employee. [2]

U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station, UCLA and UIUC, 1956-1967

Thankfully, though, he was able to secure a position as a chemical engineer for the U.S. Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS), a job that took him across the country to California, and allowed him to work with the Propulsion Department to develop polymers for binding propellants and explosives. [2] During this time at NOTS, he ended up earning a Master's Degree in Engineering from UCLA. [2] Afterwards, he went on to earn a Masters and Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Illinois Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering, the first Black to do so in the U.S. [1]

For his dissertation he and his advisor, Professor George L. Miley, did research on gamma-electric cells and their ability to convert gamma radiation in to electrical power. [1] This solid-state device not only converted energy, though. It was also able to measure the radiation of a nuclear reactor, serve as an additional source of power for a nuclear reactor system, and improved effective nuclear reactor shielding by recovering disparate gamma energy in the shield (Fig. 1). [3] After doing extensive research and testing on the gamma-electric cell, they acquired a patent for their work on July 6, 1971. [3]

Aerospace Corporation, 1967-2004

After a fulfilling career in nuclear engineering, he again transitioned his interests to another field aerospace engineering. He secured a position at the Aerospace Corporation, where he worked to help effectively operate the Air Force satellite program. [2]

Recognition and Legacy

Sampson passed away in 2015, but was given recognition for his role in the field, as represented by the many awards he received. They include, but are not limited to, the following: [2]

His lifelong career and immersion in science and engineering is a remarkable narrative. In 2014, the percentage of African American males enrolled in engineering at the baccalaureate level in colleges across the United States was 3.7%. [4] Although this number still has a lot of room to grow, it's incredible to think that Dr. Henry T. Sampson, Jr. was catalyst for future generations of Black men to follow in his footsteps.

© Paula Small. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. Aronson, "The Strengths of Sampson," University of Illionis, NPRE Alumni Newsletter, Summer 2009, p. 14.

[2] H. T. Sampson, Jr. and L. H. Young-Sampson, "The Making of a Nuclear Engineer, Inventor, and Black Film Historian: Dr. Henry Thomas Sampson, Jr.," The Journal of African American History, 94, 224 (2009).

[3] H. T. Sampson, "Gamma-Electric Cell," US Patent 3591860," 6 Jul 71.

[4] S. Y. Atwaters, J. D. Leonard, and W. Pearson, Jr., "Beyond the Black-White Minority Experience," in Changing the Face of Engineering: The African American Experience, ed. by J. B. Slaughter, Y. Tao, and W. Pearson, Jr., (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), p. 149.