Dr. Marion Antoinette Richards Myles, a scientist with expertise in plant physiology, including the effects of drugs and hormones on plant growth, played a significant role in integrating higher education in the American south. In 1965, she became the first African American faculty member of the University of Mississippi Medical School, with an appointment as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Research. Prior to accepting the position at Mississippi, Myles had both taught at numerous other colleges and universities and been awarded research fellowships to study at the California Institute of Technology and at the Institute of Nuclear Studies at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1917, Myles came from a large family with several brothers and sisters. Her father, Alfred Richards, an immigrant from Bermuda, worked as a rigger on the city wharves, while her mother Helen, was a native of Pennsylvania. According to census records, at about age 12, the Peterson family, also of Philadelphia, likely adopted Myles. Following high school graduation, she attended the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1937. She then completed a master’s degree at Atlanta University in Georgia in 1939.
From 1941 to 1943, Myles lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, teaching biology at Philander Smith College. In 1943, she began her doctoral studies at Iowa State University, receiving a research fellowship to support her scholarship in the area of plant physiology. In 1935, Iowa State had also awarded a PhD in Botany to Jesse Jarue Mark, among the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in the field.
Over the next two decades, Myles taught biology, botany, agronomy, and zoology, at several institutions including Tennessee State University, Fort Valley State College (now university) in Georgia, and Alcorn State University in Mississippi. In 1950, while serving as an Associate Professor of Agronomy at Tennessee State, she completed a special course on radioisotopes at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, planning to apply the technique to studies of plant nutrition and photosynthesis. In 1952, she won a Carnegie Foundation Research Grant and between 1959 and 1961, she served as a Research Associate in Enzymology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Professionally, Myles was active in many scientific societies and organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Botanical Society of America, the American Society of Plant Physiologists, and the National Education Association.
In 1965, Myles gained international attention when the University of Mississippi named her as its first African American faculty member. According to a July 15, 1965 article in Jet, her appointment as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology in the Medical School came over the objections of some members of the board of trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning, who opposed the selection of any black faculty. However, as a result of such discriminatory behavior, the school risked losing federal funding, as it was in violation of nondiscriminatory provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Myles passed away on October 18, 1969 at the age of 52. Her husband, Frank J. Myles, preceded her in death.