Dr. McBay not only served as scientific inspiration. Kathryn Mitchell's 2001 historical novel Proud and Angry Dust is based on real-life events from his early years in the oil-boom town of Mexia, Texas.
(Photo courtesy: Gibbs Memorial Library)
McBay was born to hardworking parents in Mexia, Texas. He studied at Wiley College, where he "fell madly in love with [organic] chemistry...the most beautiful thing in the world." By age 20, he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science, second in the Class of '34.
Atlanta University, the nation's oldest black graduate institution, had an unofficial policy of granting scholarships to the two top graduates of black colleges. This afforded McBay “meat and bread for the next nine months.” McBay studied new types of plastics and earned his Master of Science in 1936.
He returned to Texas to help pay for his siblings' college degrees, serving as an Instructor of Chemistry at Wiley College. For the next decade, without the wherewithal for doctoral work, he shared a janitor job with his brother, took courses at the University of Chicago, and taught at various schools.
He also worked with a research team at Tuskegee Institute led by George Washington Carver. The research funder was a sugar refining company interested in an alternative to the jute fiber (used for rope and burlap sacks). Imported from India, jute fiber was scarce during World War I, and the Carver team was researching okra stems as a plausible substitute. McBay's work ultimately proved that it is impossible to harvest okra both for food and for fiber-- essentially ending his fellowship in 1942. “I had researched myself out of a job,” he said.