Black History: Special Delivery!!

Dr. Betty Wright Harris (1940 – )

Dr. Betty Wright Harris (1940 – ) was born in Monroe, Louisiana. She was the 7th of 12 children. Her parents were farmers. Her mother was also a school teacher who encouraged her children to pursue education. Harris started college at the age of 16. In 1961, She received a bachelor of science degree in chemistry with a minor in Mathematics from Southern University, a historically black college. In 1963, she earned her master of science degree in chemistry from Atlanta University, also a historically black college. She would then teach chemistry and math at the college level for ten years. During this time she worked at Mississippi Valley State University as well as Southern University.

She briefly worked for IBM before taking a position at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Harris obtained her Ph.D from New Mexico State University. It was at LANL that she began to specialize in the study of explosives and nuclear weapons. She developed an expertise in the clean up of environmental hazards as well as environmental restoration. She is recognized as a leading expert in these areas. In 1986 she received a patent for a “sensitive spot test” that she created to detect the presence of 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6 trinitrobeneze (TATB). This invention made it possible for the military as well as private industry to identify the presence of explosive materials. The Department of Homeland Security also utilizes the spot test to screen for nitroaromatic explosives.

Harris held a number of management roles during her time with LANL. She was also involved in the recruitment of women and people of color into the field of science. She established a summer program for high school students and worked with the Girl Scouts to create a chemistry badge. Harris was also involved with making CD for McLean Media entitled, “Telling Our Stories: Women in Science”. She retired from LANL in 2002. She was then employed by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Classification. She worked as a certified document reviewer to help determine whether government documents should remain classified or be released to the public.

Harris has been a member of the American Chemical Society for more than 50 years. She is a member of the Women in Science and Engineering and the American Society For The Advancement of Science. She also served as the President Of The New Mexico Business and Professional Women’s Organization. In 1999, she received a governor’s award for Outstanding New Mexico Women.

Harris’ marriage to Alloyd A. Harris ended in divorce. The couple have three children. She currently resides in Maryland.