Emmett Chappelle

Mr. Emmett Chappelle, widely known as the “Father of Bioluminescence” was an African-American scientist who made grand leaps in biology and chemistry. He grew up in Phoenix in the 1930s, when it was still a small farming town, and attended segregated schools. He then was drafted into the Army during WWII and spent the next couple of years stationed in Italy as an engineer in the segregated 92nd Infantry Division. He received an Associate’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Phoenix College, and BS (1950) in Biology from the University of California Berkeley using his GI Bill benefits.

He taught Biochemistry from 1950-1953 at Meharry Medical College and studied red blood cells and anaphylactic shock. He then obtained his MA in Biology (1963) from the University of Washington. He began his PhD studies at Stanford, where he studied proteins and amino acids, but left early to take a role at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies (RIAS). At RIAS he worked on making space flight more survivable and discovered that sending plants into space with astronauts reduced the chances of carbon monoxide poisoning. He discovered ways to use light for assessment of living organisms. It is better known as the ATP fluorescent assay for bioluminescence. He eventually landed a position at NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center where he would continue to make important inventions and discoveries.

He expanded the use of fluorescence and bioluminescence. He used luciferase to test urine and blood for bacterial infections, lasers for measuring crop stress and productivity, and performed fluorescent microscopy on samples from Mars, to just to name a few things. He held 14 U.S. Patents, published more than 35 manuscripts, and more than 40 conference papers. He mentored minority high school and college students throughout his career. Due to his major contributions to science, he was named one of the 100 Most Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century (1996), received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal (1994), and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in (2007). He retired in 2001 and passed away in 2019.


  1. https://web.whoi.edu/big/black-history-month-series-2020-emmett-chapelle/
  2. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/chappelle-emmett-1925/
  3. https://blog.eoscu.com/blog/emmett-w.-chappelle-inventor-of-bioluminescent-technology
  4. https://www.invent.org/inductees/emmett-w-chappelle  
  5. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/emmett-chappelle
  6. Kessler JH, Kidd JS, Kidd RA, and Morin KA. Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century. Pub 1/8/1996. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN-10: 0897749553