Dr. Ida Stephens Owens went from humble beginnings in Whiteville, N.C., to Duke University, becoming the first Black woman to earn a Ph. D. there. Today is Dr. Owens’ birthday.
Owens was born, according to what records we could find, in 1929. She attended North Carolina Central University, earning her undergraduate degree in Biology. At NCCU, Owens was taught by Dr. Mary M. Townes, a professor of Biology at the school who she said inspired her to chase her graduate school dreams.
What is unique about Owens’ story is that she came to Duke at a time where race relations and its tensions were easing but this was still North Carolina and Jim Crow laws were still enforced.
However, in a moving profile of Duke’s Black pioneering graduate students, Owens said that she was in a welcoming environment and made to feel like a peer and not a social experiment of sorts. In 1967, she walked out of Duke with her Ph. D. In Biochemistry and Physiology.
She went on to work at the National Institutes of Health, and part of her work was focused on the genetic effects drugs had on the human body. Her laboratory was the first to discover a genetic defect that led to the rare Crigler-Najjar disorder, an advanced form of jaundice that was dangerous to infants and adults.
In 1992, Owens earned the NIH Director’s Award, and in 2013, she was given the first Duke University Graduate School’s Distinguished Alumni Award. For over three decades, she served as the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Section on Genetic Disorders of Drug Metabolism in the Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics director.
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