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Jane Eleanor Datcher: First African-American woman to obtain an advanced degree at Cornell

From Ed Cobb, Chair, SIPS History Committee:

jane datcher portrait

Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

Jane Eleanor Datcher (Nellie to her friends) was the first African-American woman to obtain an advanced degree at Cornell. She grew up in Washington, D.C. where she attended private and public schools. In 1877, she was awarded a certificate for her scholarship from the “Public Schools of the District of Columbia”.

public school certificate

Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

Datcher received her B.S. degree in 1890 from  the Cornell Botany Department in part because of a precisely hand-written thesis entitled A biological sketch of Hepatica triloba Chaix and Hepatica acutiloba DC. Hepatica is a genus of a Spring flowering plant found in the Six Mile Creek area of Ithaca, NY as well as other locations.

Datcher was included in an 1891 article about “Sage Maidens of Cornell University” published in Demorest’s Family Magazine. To quote the magazine’s figure description (see figure below)  “Pictured in ‘Sage Maidens of Cornell,’ Jane Datcher (second row, second from the left), her cousin Charles Chauveau Cook, and George Washington Fields (all class of 1890) were the first African-American students to graduate from Cornell. Datcher was the daughter of freeborn blacks who resided in Washington. She studied in private schools run by the city’s black community ….”.

sage maidens

Datcher also held a prominent place at the center of the front row in the Cornell Class of 1890 graduation photo. Her cousin Charles C. Cook is seen at the far right in the front row of the photo shown below.

1890 graduation

Image courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

After her studies at Cornell, Datcher attended Howard Medical School from 1893 to 1894. She taught chemistry from 1892 until 1934 at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. until a short time before her death. She was well loved by the faculty and her students who held a memorial service in her honor.

datcher memorium program

Image courtesy of the Moorland-Springarn Research Center at Howard University

Jane Datcher’s  great grandmother on her father’s side of the family was Rachel Mann, a full-blooded Algonquin who lived until the age of 108. Over 20 of Datcher’s relatives attended Cornell (Carol Kammen, Part and Apart  The Black Experience at Cornell 1865 -1945, 2009) including several cousins and her niece, Adelaide Helen Cook Daly, A. B. 1918, daughter of Charles Chauveau Cook, B.L. 1890. Charles C. Cook became a professor and head of  the English Department at Howard University where he was a popular teacher from 1892 until his untimely death in 1910 at the age of 36.

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