Reintroducing Joseph Thomas Gier

The First Tenured Black Professor at the University of California

Electrical Engineering Professor Joseph T. Gier

In 1942, David Blackwell, the man widely credited with being the first tenured Black professor at U.C. Berkeley (see sidebar), was courted for a faculty position in the mathematics department but was never offered the job. He later learned that the appointment was blocked because he was Black.  In 1946, a Black mechanical engineering alumnus named Joseph Thomas Gier (B.S. ’33, M.S. ’41), considered by many at the time to be the “best laboratory instructor ever to teach in electrical engineering at Berkeley,” was hired in the EE department as a half-time lecturer.  He spent the other half of his appointment doing research in the field of thermal radiation in the Department of Engineering[*] and became a world authority on infrared measurement.  In 1952, he was promoted to Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering with tenure, two years before Blackwell was hired in the Department of Statistics.

Gier’s promotion made him the first Black tenured faculty member in the entire University of California educational system and the first tenured Black professor in a STEM field—and the second in any field—at a predominantly white, top-ranked American university (the first was W. Allison Davis, a professor of education at the University of Chicago who earned tenure in 1947.)[**]

Many trailblazers are overlooked in favor of more accessible or available heroes.   Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, nine months before Rosa Parks made history for doing the same thing.  Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first openly Black man to play professional baseball in America, 63 years before Jackie Robinson. Gier’s untimely death in 1961 at the age of 50 was probably the most significant obstacle to his lasting fame. Yet Gier was a pioneer in every sense.  By 1949, he had already been elected to full membership in the scientific honor society, Sigma Xi, a recognition bestowed by invitation only to one who “has shown noteworthy achievement as an original investigator in a field of pure or applied science.” He was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a full member of both the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) and the American Society of Refrigerating Engineering (ASRE).  He was twice honored by his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha (APA) :  in 1950 as “Man of the Year” and in 1956 for “Outstanding Service to the Community and Fraternity.” He was also honored by the Los Angeles Urban League for his attempts to promote interracial relations and “improve housing and employment for minorities.”

Gier and his colleague, mechanical engineering professor Robert Valentine Dunkle, patented five instruments and started a manufacturing business together.  It is notable that, although Dunkle was then considered “a famous radiation professor,” Gier’s name appears first on their joint inventions.  The Gier Dunkle Total Hemispherical Radiometer remained in widespread use for years throughout the world by scientists studying heat balances and heat transfer problems.  The Gier Dunkle Black Body Reflectometer became standard equipment in America’s space laboratories where it was used to help select materials which could withstand the searing heat of the sun in outer space.  It was also used in the design of equipment on Earth to harness solar energy.  Both inventions generated revenue for U. C. Berkeley.

Gier’s associates said that his reports on thermal radiation were “basic references in the field” and his “method of measurement of reflectivity and emissivity over the complete range from 1.0 to 23 microns” became recognized as a standard method.  Aircraft industries requested numerous measurements from him for various materials used in jet engines and rocket-type missiles, and he headed a project conducting research on thermal radiation for the Office of Naval Research (ONR).   Gier helped make U.C. Berkeley’s heat and power research group one of the most prestigious in the country.

By all accounts, Joseph Gier was a kind, generous and brilliant man whose achievements were so singular that they appear to have predated a society prepared to celebrate him.  Yet Gier’s legacy lives on.  He inspired and influenced many people, of different races, who became influential themselves.  By setting such an important precedent, he made it easier for those who came after him and permanently broadened the boundaries of science and academia for everyone.

From the 2003 U. C. Berkeley General Catalog

Read more about Gier in his EECS home page (which includes a full list of citations for this story), his U. C. obituary, and the EECS Gier Dunkle Instruments page.

If you have any information, documents, photographs, or anecdotes about Profs. Gier or Dunkle, or would like to share insights into the value of their scientific endeavors, please contact

[*] Between 1946 and 1957 the Department of Engineering was an academic unit that contained multiple divisions within the College of Engineering

[**] JBHE Chronology of Major Landmarks in the Progress of African Americans in Higher Education