Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman Sr: The Jackie Robinson of Proctor & Gamble
Have you used Crest toothpaste recently? Or Bounce fabric softener? Then the name Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman Sr. is one you should know. Dr. Smitherman Sr. was a chemist and the first Black person with a Doctorate level degree to be employed at Proctor & Gamble. During his time at Proctor & Gamble he dramatically improved the formulas for several products and has an incredible list of patents for improved formulas for products such as Crest toothpaste, Safeguard soap, Bounce fabric softener, Bix, Folgers Coffee, and Crush soda. Dr. Smitherman Sr. was called ‘the Jackie Robinson of Proctor & Gamble’ by his son. He was instrumental in breaking down racial barriers so that aspiring Black chemists and scientists could have an opportunity to be successful in STEM careers.
Dr. Herbert Charles Smitherman Sr. was born on March 23rd, 1937 in Birmingham, Alabama. He was the only child of a Baptist Minister, Reverend Smitherman Otis C., and his wife Mrs. Alberta. It is said that from a young age, Dr. Smitherman would often tinker with things, an innovator in the making. He went on to graduate from Tuskegee University with a Bachelor's and Master’s degrees in Chemistry. While at Tuskegee University, Dr. Smitherman met his wife Barbara Smitherman. After graduation, he taught at Texas Southern University before a two-year stint in the United States Army after which he enrolled at Howard University to pursue his Ph.D in physical organic chemistry.
Dr. Herbert C. Smitherman Sr. made history at Proctor & Gamble in 1966, when he became the first Black person hired there with a Doctorate degree. He was instrumental in Proctor & Gamble’s growth because of his innovation, and during his 29 years working at the company developed patterns for improving the formulas for products such as Crest toothpaste, Safeguard soap, Bounce fabric softener, Crush soda, Folgers Coffee, and Biz detergent. His innovations were crucial to propelling the success of these products. Some of the patents he developed while at Proctor & Gamble were featured in the ‘America I AM: The African American Imprint’ exhibit at the Cincinnati Center, which then moved to the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina. In addition, one of his patents for the toothpaste formula has been cited by 31 other patents, showing how his work has aided other scientists.
Dr. Smitherman was also instrumental in recruiting more minority undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. science, chemistry, and chemical engineering students for Proctor & Gamble. This was through a number of recruitment programs such as summer programs to invite college students to work at Proctor & Gamble. A lot of the Black chemists and chemical engineering students were hired in the ’70s & 80’s thanks to these various recruitment programs. Dr. Smitherman helped to establish the Black Technical Ph.D. Group at Proctor & Gamble that advocated for Black scientists and engineers to be awarded, paid, and promoted for their contributions. He wanted to help create a national program that supported Black chemists and engineers, and this led to him helping in the establishment of the National Organization for Black chemists and chemical engineers (NOBCCHE). NOBCCHE aims to push collaboration and professionalism among Black chemists and chemical engineers. Through NOBCCHE, Proctor & Gamble awarded the first scholarship to a Black Ph.D. candidate, and this program is still awarding scholarships to aspiring Ph.D. chemical engineers and chemists.
After working for 29 years at Proctor & Gamble, Dr. Smitherman left and returned to working in education. He worked for four years as the Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs and a Chemistry professor, at Wilberforce University, and continued to work for Cincinnati Public schools between 2000-2009. Dr. Smitherman wanted to inspire and encourage the youth to pursue an education and career in STEM and played an important role in establishing a Saturday enrichment program at two Cincinnati inner-city schools. As part of the program, scientists and mathematicians from local industries would volunteer.
Dr. Smitherman passed away in October 2010 and is survived by his wife and 5 children. He was a true pioneer and worked tirelessly to break down barriers for future Black chemists and scientists. He has changed the lives of many not only through his innovation, but also through his dedication to making sure that other people’s dreams of being in STEM are realized. He made sure that he was not the last Black person with a doctorate at Proctor & Gamble, and broke down barriers for Black chemists and chemical engineers. His impact and legacy will not be forgotten.