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Emmett William Chappelle

Emmett William Chappelle
October 24, 1925 – October 14, 2019
Notable: Scientist & Biochemist
Nationality: American


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Emmett Chappelle was born in Phoenix, Arizona to Viola White and Isom Chappelle. He grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of town where his parents grew cotton and raised cattle. At the time, Phoenix was a small segregated agricultural city where Chappelle was able to learn and explore nature in the desert. Chappelle attended a one-room all-Black primary school and later an all-Black public high school from which he graduated at the top of his class.

When Chappelle graduated in 1942, America was in the midst of World War II and he was drafted immediately. Chappelle was first assigned to attend the Army Specialized Training Program which enabled him to take engineering courses. He was assigned to the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division which saw action in Italy where Chappelle was wounded twice.

Upon returning to America, Chappelle completed an Associate’s Degree in electrical engineering at Phoenix College. Chappelle utilized the GI Bill to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of California Berkeley. With his degrees, Chappelle was able to obtain a job at Meharry Medical College where he spent several years teaching biochemistry. Chappelle’s time at Meharry was significant because it also marked the beginning of his independent research.

Chappelle began exploring anaphylactic shock and iron recycling by red blood cells. His research brought notoriety within the biochemical sphere and offers to continue his research and pursue graduate studies at various schools. Chappelle accepted an offer from the University of Washington where he would earn a master’s degree in biology. While working on his graduate degrees, Chappelle researched how the human body utilizes and converts proteins and amino acids.

He later began but did not complete his Ph.D. studies at Stanford University as he opted to accept a position at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Baltimore, Maryland. The Research Institute was a part of Martin Marietta, an aerospace company. While in Baltimore, Chappelle worked on providing astronauts with safe breathable air. He conducted research into single-cell organisms such as algae that could use photosynthesis to generate oxygen from carbon dioxide keeping astronauts safe aboard spaceships.

In 1963, Chappelle accepted a position at Hazelton Laboratories, a NASA contractor. A few years later Chappelle joined NASA and was later assigned to work at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Chappelle’s work at these aerospace companies took place during the height of the space race and he continued to make important contributions. He was tasked with developing a method for detecting life on other planets. Once again working with proteins, Chappelle invented the ATP fluorescent assay.

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a chemical that is present in all living cells. When ATP comes into contact with the bioluminescent chemicals luciferin and luciferase (produced by fireflies) it glows. Soil samples could be treated with luciferin and luciferase to gauge how much if any light the soil produced thus indicating the presence of living cells.

While Martian soil has not been obtained for testing, Chappelle’s fluorescent tests have been used in the study of microbial life on Earth. The ATP test can detect bacteria which is a strong indicator of life beyond Earth. The test is used in combination with satellites to monitor the health of crops thus increasing the efficiency of food production. Chappelle adapted his ATP test for identifying bacteria in body fluids such as urine, blood, and spinal fluid as well as drinking water and food.

Chappelle continued to work for NASA until his retirement in 2001. During his career, Chappelle was awarded 14 patents, wrote over 35 peer-reviewed publications and 50 conference papers, and was a co-contributor of several publications. He was a member of several scientific societies and mentored minority high school and college students. Emmett Chappelle had been married to Rose Mary Phillips and had four children. At the time of his death on October 14, 2019, he was living with his daughter and son-in-law in Baltimore.


  1. Bellis, Mary. 2019. “Biography of Emmett Chappelle, American Inventor.” ThoughtCo.Com. Dotdash Meredith. July 3, 2019.
  2. Crane, Danielle. 2022. “Emmett Chappelle.” St. Michael the Archangel Church. February 8, 2022.
  3. “Emmett Chappelle: Illuminating Paths Forward.” n.d. National Inventors Hall of Fame. Accessed April 11, 2024.
  4. “Emmett Chappelle’s Biography.” 2012. The HistoryMakers. August 30, 2012.
  5. “Emmett W. Chappelle: African American Inventor.” n.d. Myblackhistory.Net. Accessed April 11, 2024.
  6. Hidayat, Alia. 2020. Broader Impacts Group. February 28, 2020.
  7. “NIHF Inductee Emmett Chappelle and Bioluminenscence.” n.d. NIHF Inductee Emmett Chappelle and Bioluminescence. Accessed April 11, 2024.
  8. Rupert, Allison. 2023. “Emmett Chappelle (1925-2019).” Blackpast.Org. March 6, 2023.

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