In the spring of 1961, Ida Stephens Owens graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina College—now North Carolina Central University— with a major in biology. Just a few months earlier, Duke University’s board of trustees voted to integrate its graduate and professional schools. Owens came to the attention of Daniel C. Tosteson, then chair of the physiology department, who was recruiting accomplished students from black colleges to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences.
Owens enrolled in the fall of 1962 and became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate from Duke, in 1967, in physiology and biochemistry. (James Roland Law, who graduated the same year, was the first African-American man to earn a Ph.D., in psychology.) Owens went on to a long and distinguished career at the National Institutes of Health, where she established a research lab to investigate a drug-detoxifying system now recognized for its studies on the genetics of human diseases. She is known throughout the world for her work on drug-detoxifying enzymes.
The Education of Ida Owens: Science, Civil Rights, and the Integration of Duke University, directed by Ivan Weiss, tells the story of Owens’ inspirational journey. Spearheaded by the Graduate School as part of the 50th commemoration of black students at Duke, the documentary premiered this spring at Duke, accompanied by a panel discussion on desegregation in higher education. The documentary and related materials are housed at Duke Libraries and are available for public research. Owens remains closely connected to Duke. She is the inaugural recipient of the Graduate School’s Distinguished Alumni Award and has served on the Trinity College board of visitors and the Women’s Studies Advisory Council.
Watch the documentary below.