When Dr. Isiah Warner first attended Southern University to pursue a chemistry degree, nearby LSU was still segregated. Today, the 70-year-old is a beloved LSU chemistry figure, acting as Boyd Professor of chemistry, among other titles. He was also named 2016 SEC Professor of the Year.
He’s widely credited, in addition to targeted efforts to diversify LSU’s students, with helping the chemistry department become the top in the nation in granting Ph.Ds to African-Americans and women in recent years. He’s regarded as a legend for both his long list of accomplishments and his relatability. And he’s not done leaving his legacy yet.
Here, he tells the story of how a black country boy growing up in Bunkie during the Jim Crow era first fell in love with chemistry.
“I performed my first chemistry experiment in 1948 at the age of 2. We have lightning storms around here in Louisiana. When the electricity would go out, my parents would get this little lamp, they’d pour some liquid in it, light it and then the room would light up. I was curious as a 2-year-old, ‘What was that liquid?’ I thought it must be dangerous, because they’d lock it away when they weren’t using it. One day, they forgot to lock it. I opened up the low cabinet and smelled it and boy, was it odd-smelling. Here I am thinking, ‘What kind of chemistry experiment can I do? I know—I’ll taste it!’ So I drank some kerosene. My mother was working in the cotton fields, so it was my grandmother who found me. I had gone limp and unconscious after drinking it, because kerosene has volatile compounds, and it cuts off your breath. I ended up in the hospital, lucky to be alive. After that, I became fixated on science. When I was 12, my parents bought me a chemistry set. Now, I’m here. Still passionate about chemistry but equally passionate about students.”
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of 225 Magazine.