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Walter Lincoln Hawkins: Pioneering Innovation in Plastics and Mentoring Excellence

Our bonus spotlight series this week will cover African American mathematicians, writers, scientists, historians, and entrepreneurs.

Walter Lincoln Hawkins, born on March 21, 1911, overcame a challenging upbringing to become a trailblazing African American chemist and engineer. His remarkable journey, marked by resilience and groundbreaking contributions to the field of plastics, has left an enduring legacy in both scientific innovation and mentorship.

Early Life and Education:

Orphaned at a young age, Hawkins was raised by his sister in an era where educational and professional opportunities for African Americans were limited. However, attending the prestigious Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., provided him with a foundation in math and science, nurturing a sense of self-confidence that would propel him toward his dreams.

Hawkins pursued a degree in chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1932. His educational journey continued with a master's degree in chemistry from Howard University and a doctoral degree in cellulose chemistry from McGill University in Montreal.

Career at Bell Labs:

In 1942, Hawkins made history by becoming the first African American scientist at AT&T's Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Over his 34-year career at Bell Labs, he earned a reputation for extending the lifespan of plastics and making significant contributions to telecommunications.

Innovation in Plastic Coatings:

One of Hawkins' major accomplishments was the development of a groundbreaking polymer in 1956 alongside Victor Lanza. This innovation, known as "plastic cable sheath," replaced toxic lead-based materials used in telephone cables, offering an economical, durable, and safe alternative. The polymer, resistant to weather extremes, became widely used to coat telecommunications wires and is still utilized today to protect fiber optic cables.

Contributions to Plastics Chemistry:

Hawkins ascended to leadership roles at Bell Labs, serving as Head of Plastics Chemistry R&D, Assistant Director of the Chemical Research Laboratory, and eventually as department head. His contributions extended beyond the development of plastic coatings, including the design of a lab test using spectroscopy to predict plastic surface durability. He also played a crucial role in developing techniques for recycling and reusing plastics.

Mentorship and Educational Advocacy:

Throughout his career, Hawkins remained dedicated to mentoring disadvantaged and minority youth. He served as the first chairman of the American Chemical Society's Project SEED, fostering educational opportunities for economically disadvantaged students. His commitment to mentorship continued even after retirement.

Legacy and Recognition:

Walter Lincoln Hawkins retired from Bell Labs in 1976 but continued to contribute to the field as the research director of the Plastics Institute of America until 1983. His accolades include the National Medal of Technology, awarded by President George H.W. Bush, the International Award from the Society of Plastics Engineers, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010.

Walter Lincoln Hawkins' pioneering work in plastics chemistry and his unwavering commitment to mentorship have left an indelible mark on both the scientific community and the lives of aspiring scientists. His legacy endures through the W. Lincoln Hawkins Mentoring Excellence Award at Bell Labs, symbolizing the impact of his visionary contributions and dedication to fostering future generations of innovators.

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