Buffalo soldier who became pioneering NASA scientist dies at 93

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Emmett William Chappelle Sr., a retired NASA scientist who studied luminescence and once recruited children to collect fireflies for his research, died of renal failure Oct. 14 at his home in the Garwyn Oaks section of West Baltimore. He was 93.

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, he was the son of Isom Chappelle, a farmer who raised cotton and cattle, and his wife, Viola. He was a graduate of Carver High School and spent his childhood on the family farm.

During World War II he joined the Army and served from 1942 to 1946 in the African American 92nd Infantry Division, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers Division. A mortar expert stationed in Italy, he was was wounded by shrapnel that struck his head. He received a Purple Heart.


Members of an African-American mortar company of the 92nd Division pass ammunition and heave it over at the Germans in an almost endless stream near Massa, Italy, November, 1944 (National Archives)

After the war he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from the University of California at Berkeley and a master's degree from the University of Washington. In the early 1950s he taught biochemistry at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Mr. Chappelle settled in Baltimore in 1958 and lived for many years on Allendale Road in the Garwyn Oaks section. He joined the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and was a NASA scientist.

Working in NASA's Remote Sensing Division, he was a specialist in the field of luminescence — light without heat — and bioluminescence — warm light produced by living organisms. He worked to find how to gauge plant health and detect bacteria in outer space.

"He was serious about his work because as a scientist, he loved doing what he did," said Rodney Washington, who lives in West Grove, Pennsylvania. "But he was a true mentor to me. I was young, 23 years old at the time, and needed a car after the engine blew in mine. He took me to Berman's and bought me a used Toyota. I said I'd pay it off, but he let me come over to his house and work it off. I never paid a cent. He didn't have a selfish bone in his body."

His family said his research produced several developments, including methods to detect the presence of microorganisms on other planets and measurement of the number of bacteria in water, His work assisted physicians and scientists in detecting small amounts of bacteria in bodily fluids that could indicate an onset of a bacterial infection.

"Some of Dad's early research used chemicals found in tails of fireflies, and he spent some time in Ecuador where the species were larger than the ones in the United States," said his daughter, Carlotta Chappelle, a Baltimore resident. "There was one summer when he paid a penny for each firefly we caught. There was many an evening when all the neighborhood kids were out with their jars catching fireflies."

Dr. Emmett W. Chappelle at the National Inventors Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2007, March 6, 2007 (NASA)

Moon Kim recalled that as a student at the University of Maryland, he met Mr. Chappelle at his lab.

"He was a great inspiration for young graduate students," said Mr. Kim, who lives in Ashton in Montgomery County. "He was a good listener and he gave me an opportunity. He was a dedicated scientist and was positive and patient with us youngsters."

Mr. Chappelle also developed a laser-induced fluorescence that could measure the amount of photosynthesis occurring in crops to help detect plant stress and determine growth patterns.

He had 15 U.S. patents for inventions in medicine, food science and biochemistry.

NASA awarded him an Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for his work and honored his service as a mentor for many high school and college students. He retired in 2001.

He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

Mr. Chappelle participated in creating the archives of the History Makers, an African American video oral history project.

He was an amateur photographer and built a darkroom in his house to develop his pictures. He was an avid reader of criminal and mystery novels. He loved watching sports.

In 1994, his wife of 47 years, Rosemary Phillips, chairwoman of the Baltimore City Commission on Aging and Retirement Education, died.

He later spent time with Eugenia Collier, who lived in nearby Windsor Hills.

"It was curiosity that made him a scientist," Ms. Collier said. "And curiosity was part of his relationship with people. When he met you, he'd ask you how old you are and where you live."

She said Mr. Chappelle was an Orioles fan who remained faithful to the team, no matter its success or failure.

"He held on to the team and remained faithful," she said.

The Loudon Park Funeral Home is in charge of a memorial service. A date has not been set.

In addition to his son and daughter and companion, survivors include another son, Emmett Chappelle Jr. of Baltimore; another daughter, Deborah Harris, also of Baltimore; a brother, LeRoi Chappelle of San Diego; a grandson; and three step-grandchildren.

©2019 The Baltimore Sun.Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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