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Ida Stephens Owens, first black woman to earn a Duke Ph.D., remembered as a “true pioneer”

Courtesy of Roketa Sloan
Courtesy of Roketa Sloan

Ida Stephens Owens, the first black woman to earn her doctorate at Duke, died Feb. 24 at the age of 80.

Born in Whiteville, N.C., Owens received her undergraduate degree in biology from North Carolina Central University—then called North Carolina College at Durham—in 1961. Under the tutelage of Mary Townes, an acclaimed professor who served as a role model and has campus buildings named in her honor, Owens was considering applying to graduate school at Duke at a time when the Graduate School had just been desegregated.

Owens was able to get into contact with Daniel C. Tosteson, chair of Duke’s department of physiology. Tosteton was recruiting students from neighboring black colleges for graduate-level science work, and his passion for science and desire for change compelled Owens to apply. She was admitted to the Graduate School and enrolled in September 1962, one year after the school integrated.

Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, explained that Owens was “a true pioneer at Duke.”

“As one privileged to work with graduate and professional students from across the campus, it is always gratifying to share with them a little about the legacy of Dr. Owens and to watch the success of those that travel the path that she helped blaze for them,” Guinn wrote in an email. “Last week the heavens became a whole lot more enlighted, as Dr. Owens and NASA pioneer Ms. Katherine Johnson made their transitions on the same day.  The world is better for the lives that they led and the intellectual contributions that they made.”

Completing her postdoctoral work at the National Institutes for Health, Owens pursued an interest in investigating how the body processes medical drugs. She steadily progressed from a contributing researcher to a director in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 

In this position, Owens was responsible for dedicated research on glucuronosyltransferases, complex enzymes that help the body process drugs. She also determined the cause of Crigler-Najjar syndrome, which leads to jaundice. For a lifetime of contributions, she received the 1992 NIH Director’s Award.

Owens remained an active alumna and served as a member of the Trinity College Board of Visitors and the Women’s Studies Advisory Council. For her efforts and impact on the University, she received the first Distinguished Alumni Award from The Graduate School in 2013. The Duke Bouchet Society, which supports graduate students from minority groups who are studying STEM subjects, also hosts an annual dinner in her honor. The Graduate School released a documentary in 2014 detailing her life and career. 

“Dr. Owens was a trailblazer, an outstanding scientist and a vibrant and hard-charging presence,” wrote Paula McClain, dean of the Graduate School, in an email sent by a spokesperson. “She would have found success no matter what school she went to, and we were lucky to have her as part of the Duke family. She will be dearly missed, but her life and career will continue to inspire scholars at Duke and beyond.”

Owens is survived by her husband, Herbert, their two children, two siblings and many other loving relatives. In lieu of flowers, the Owens family asked for donations to the Graduate School’s Annual Fund. 

Correction: The quote from Paula McClain was originally misattributed to John Zhu, and misidentified Daniel Tosteson as James Tosteson. The Chronicle regrets the errors.

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