Exploring ASM’s DEI History: Celebrating and Learning From Our Past

Jan. 17, 2023

As ASM approached its 100th anniversary in the late 1990s, Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C., collected decades worth of the Society’s history. From celebrating microbiologists who were among the first ASM members from historically underrepresented groups, to noting the first instance of leadership taking a public stand against segregation, her writings recorded milestone years for the organization. These accounts were printed in multiple ASM publications and are housed today in the Center for the History of Microbiology/ASM Archives (CHOMA).  

Like Johnson-Thompson, Mary Sánchez Lanier, Ph.D., Assistant Vice Provost at Washington State University (WSU) and Professor in the School of Molecular Biosciences, believes in learning from the past and has been highly involved in furthering ASM’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts for more than 2 decades. “Sometimes history can teach about what not to repeat, as well as what things are worth repeating,” Sánchez Lanier said. Her DEI work focuses on supporting students and faculty from historically underrepresented groups. She also represents ASM on the steering committee for the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minoritized Scientists (ABRCMS). “We stand on the shoulders of many people, and it's good to acknowledge that, as well as celebrate our past successes.” 

As the Society looks toward celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2024, shared findings from the oral and written records are helping to identify gaps, progress and successes in past and current DEI efforts, while honoring individuals who have fought (and continue to fight) social injustice and racial disparities to address systemic inequities in the microbial sciences and around the globe. 

Exploring ASM’s Archives 

Ruth E. Moore
Dr. Ruth E. Moore. Moore was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in the natural sciences. She became an ASM member in 1947.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Much of Johnson-Thompson's research focused on the early history of Black microbiologists. Her research starts in the 1930s, a time when Jim Crow Laws enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States, and the Great Depression hit Black individuals harder than any other group of Americans. Between 1932 and 1948, 12 Black microbiologists received Ph.D.s in microbiology, and only 2 Black members joined the Society.  

A major turning point for the organization occurred in 1956, as described in the 1997 publication, “Ethnic Diversity in ASM: the Early History of African-American Microbiologists,” co-authored by Johnson-Thompson and the late James M. Jay, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Biological Science at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. 

Hildrus Poindexter
Dr. Hildrus Poindexter attended his first ASM meeting in 1937, but did not become an ASM member until 1947.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
That year, ASM’s annual meeting was held in Houston, Texas, where city accommodations, like hotel rooms, were racially segregated. When 2 Black attendees, Thomas E. Shockley and Charles W. Johnson, both of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, stepped into a passenger elevator, the operator said they would have to take the freight elevator instead. Robert P. Williams, a white attendee, who served as ASM President in 1983, interceded and told the operator that he, Shockley and Johnson would ride together. This event was one of the earliest recorded instances of ASM leadership speaking out against segregation, and 1956 was the last time a major ASM meeting was held in a city whose accommodations were not open to Black members. “This turning point—though it sounds short—was a very long-lasting turning point,” Johnson-Thompson said.  

Reflecting on ASM’s DEI Leaders 

It took 32 more years before individuals from historically underrepresented communities held top elected leadership roles at ASM. Alice Huang, Ph.D., became the first ASM president from a historically underrepresented background and the first Asian American president in the U.S. to lead a life sciences organization in 1988. Huang joined the Society in 1967 and was awarded ASM’s Eli Lilly Award in Immunology and Microbiology in 1977. In 2001, she received the Alice C. Evans Award, recognizing outstanding contributions toward the full participation and advancement of women in the microbial sciences. 

Dr. Cliff Houston became the first Black president of ASM in 2007.
Cliff Houston became the first Black president of ASM in 2007.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
In 2007, Clifford Houston, Ph.D.became the first Black president of ASM. Prior to that, under his leadership, the ASM Education Board was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for its commitment to graduate education in 2000.  

As of 2022, Houston and Huang are among a small group of presidents from historically underrepresented backgrounds in ASM’s history. 

This reflection is important and serves as a reminder that structural barriers can deter individuals from acquiring leadership opportunities. To address this, ASM recently updated volunteer leadership appointment and nomination processes as part of a pilot program to ensure inclusive, thorough searches for candidates, with the goal of identifying the best candidates and expanding inclusion and representation from historically underrepresented scientists in the microbial sciences.  

DEI Efforts Across ASM 

Throughout ASM’s history, countless individuals collaborated on committees and initiatives that were pivotal to the Society’s DEI efforts. For example, the creation of the Committee for Minority Education in the Education Department in 1993, the establishment of ASM’s Minority Task Force in 1995, the creation of ABRCMS in 2001 and transformation of numerous DEI-focused committees over the years have helped to extend the reach of ASM’s DEI efforts.   

More recently, the Society sought to examine and strengthen DEI efforts through an extensive review of its practices and programming. ASM created the DEI Task Force in 2018 and presented the findings to the ASM Board of Directors in 2020. This report made specific recommendations for fostering an inclusive culture at ASM

Looking Forward 

Looking back at the past helps us identify where we, as individuals and as an organization, are headed. We will continue to share accounts from our written and oral historic record—through in-depth interviews, resurfaced articles and documents from ASM’s archives. We invite you to join us in celebrating the individuals who strive to make the microbial sciences more inclusive and identifying the work that still needs to be done.  

As Johnson-Thompson summarized, “You have to keep pushing it. You can't relax, because if you do, institutional memory is lost and so are [DEI] efforts.” 

This article series resurfaces archived historical information published in 1997 and 2007. Please note that some of the archived documents referenced in this article use language and terminology that is not in line with DEI best practices today. 

Do you have a piece of ASM’s history that you’d like to share? We want to speak with you! 

Author: Leah Potter, M.S.

Leah Potter, M.S.
Leah Potter joined ASM in 2022 as the Communications Specialist.