Jackson JW Clemmons

Jackson JW Clemmons
Doctor of Science, honoris causa

Jackson Clemmons is a pioneer and an innovative leader, both in his profession and his avocation. Born in Beloit, Wisconsin, he attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, earning three degrees in biochemistry: a bachelor of science, a master’s of science, and a doctorate. As the first African American student in the biochemistry department, he paved the way for young African American scientists and premedical students to follow.

In his master’s and doctoral pursuits, Dr. Clemmons worked as a research assistant, associate, or fellow in prestigious laboratories including the University of Wisconsin, the Karolinska Institute of Biophysics and Cell Research in Stockholm, and the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York. At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Clemmons worked with Karl Paul Link as a laboratory assistant involved in the development of the anticoagulants Dicoumarol and Warfarin.

Following the achievement of his doctorate, which included work in experimental pathology, Jackson Clemmons enrolled in Western Reserve University School of Medicine, receiving his Doctor of Medicine in 1961. He twice won American Cancer Society postdoctoral fellowships, both during his medical studies and following. He also received a highly competitive Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship, which he utilized for research at both Western Reserve and at the University of Vermont Medical School, where he was initially appointed as assistant professor of pathology in 1962.

Regarded as a highly inventive and creative researcher at UVM, Doctor Clemmons often designed and built his own research equipment. He is nationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in perinatal pathology and cytogenetics. As a pathologist and the second African American on the UVM medical school faculty, he advocated for recruitment strategies to attract and retain more students and faculty of color. He served on numerous committees in his tenure at UVM, including Admissions and Student Affairs, and as an advisor to several national institutes, including the Agency of Housing and Urban Development and the National Institutes of Health. A highly regarded counsellor, role model, and inspirational mentor to his students and post-doctoral students, Dr. Clemmons influenced the research careers of many.

Arriving in Vermont in 1962 with his wife, Lydia, a nurse anesthetist, the couple purchased a 148-acre farm in Charlotte, joining a small cadre of African American farm owners nationwide.

Currently in transition from a private holding to a nonprofit, the Clemmons Family Farm features six historic buildings dating to the late 1700s and mid-1800s, all beautifully improved and hand-restored over five decades by Dr. Clemmons—whose grandfather taught him the skills of the carpentry trade—and a small team of local artisans.

The physical focus of the nonprofit activities will be the 1830s-era Big Barn, the redesign of which is being led by Zena Howard, senior project manager for the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. The barn’s transition to a performing arts venue is underway thanks to a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America and a barn preservation grant from the Vermont Agency for Commerce and Community Development. Several of the Clemmons’ children are involved with the emerging nonprofit. The Clemmons Family Farm’s mission is to create a welcoming space for all people to learn about, commune with, and celebrate African American and African diaspora art, history, and culture.

It is a fitting legacy for a family that has long put community values into action. From the time they arrived in Vermont, Jackson and Lydia Clemmons endeavored to create an enriching community of neighbors, friends, and visitors to their farm. They served as co-presidents of the Charlotte Central School PTA, and Jackson Clemmons served as school director and as vice chair of the Champlain Valley Union High School board. Together Doctor and Mrs. Clemmons travelled and volunteered in hospitals and medical centers throughout Africa from 1984 to 2005 and pursued their love of learning about the art and cultures of the continent.

Researcher, physician, educator, farmer, artisan, overseas ambassador, devoted community builder—Jackson Clemmons’ decades of pioneering work are an inspiring testimony to a life lived in service to the potentials inherent in our common humanity, and to honoring the gifts that define us.