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Thornton, Robert A. (Robert Ambrose) (1897-1982) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Thornton, Robert A. (Robert Ambrose) (1897-1982)


Historical Note:

Dr. Robert A. Thornton physicist, teacher, and university administrator

Dr. Thornton was born in Houston, Texas on July 6, 1897. He attended the Houston Colored High School, but since the school ended at the eleventh grade he finished his education at the Los Angeles Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, California in 1918. In 1922, he graduated from Howard University with a B.S. in Mathematics and Physics and received an M.S. from Ohio State University in 1925. That year, he married fellow Howard alumna Jessie Thornton (neé Bullock). He was a Rockefeller Scholar who studied mathematics and physics at the University of Chicago from 1927 to 1928 and physics at the University of Minnesota from 1935 to 1936. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1946 at the age of 49. Dr. Thornton did post-doctoral work with Albert Einstein at Princeton University. In 1981, he received honorary degrees from the University of the District of Columbia and the University of San Francisco.

Over the course of his prolific career, Dr. Thornton taught and worked as an administrator at over ten different universities. He began his career teaching physics and mathematics at Shaw University from 1922 to 1925 where he eventually became head of the science division. He also planned and supervised the construction of the science building. From 1925 to 1927, he developed a four year academic and building program at Kittrell College in North Carolina. From there, he taught physics and mathematics at Johnson C. Smith University (1928-1929), Talladega College (1929-1944), the University of Alabama (1943-1944), the University of Puerto Rico (1944-1948), the College of the University of Chicago (1948-1950), Brandeis University (1950-1953), and San Francisco University (1956-1969). He was also a lecturer at the Summer Institute at the University of Michigan in 1954. In addition, he also served as Dean of Instruction at Dillard University from 1953 to 1955, the Dean of College at Fisk University from 1955 to 1956, and the Dean of the School of Natural Sciences at San Francisco State University from 1956 to 1976 until he officially retired.

In addition to his work as a professor and university administrator, Dr. Thornton also served as a consultant to the Juaréz-Lincoln Center (now Juaréz-Lincoln University) in Texas. He was also a lecturer at the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning which specialized in educating retirees.

Dr. Thornton authored several books including, Introduction to Physical Science, Problems in Physics, and Course in Physical Science. He also wrote many articles about physics and physics education. He was a member of the California Governor’s Advisor Committee on Educational Television and was involved in community organizations such as the Kiwanis Club.

His experiences and abilities meant that Dr. Thornton was sought after for his advice and recommendations. He often discussed the importance of scientists having knowledge of social issues in order to better teach people and implement ideas. He believed that African American children needed role models in the disciplines of mathematics and science, and that existing role models were being systematically overlooked.

Dr. Thornton died in 1982 at his home in Fairfax, Virginia at the age of 85.

Note Author: Jasmaine Talley





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