Ida Stephens Owens yearbook photo
Centennial Spotlights

Ida Stephens Owens

At a time when few Black women were pursuing higher education, Ida Stephens Owens was being recruited to Duke’s Graduate School.

In 1962, Owens was one of the first three Black students to enroll in the Graduate School, which the trustees had voted to desegregate the year before.

Five years later, Owens became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D from Duke. Then she became a world-leading researcher on the genetics of human diseases.

Owens grew up in Whiteville, North Carolina, and graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina College at Durham, now North Carolina Central University.

Owens credited Mary Townes, a biology teacher at NCCU, with her desire to learn. Townes taught her only one course, “but for some reason, I was always in her presence,” Owens said in a Duke documentary.

Another of Owens’ NCCU professors introduced her to Daniel C. Tosteson, chair of the Duke Department of Physiology. Tosteston “was interested in a more inclusive environment at Duke,” Owens said in 2015. “And I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Ida Stephens Owens photo from 2014

Owens spent five decades at the National Institutes of Health. Within a decade of graduating from Duke, she initiated a research program to investigate a drug-detoxifying system now recognized for its studies on the genetics of human diseases.

Owens was the first to determine genetic defects in children with Crigler-Najjar disease, a rare disorder that can cause brain damage in infants. She retired in 2017.

Owens maintained a lifelong connection to Duke. She served on the Trinity College Board of Visitors and the Women’s Studies Advisory Council. She died in February 2020 at 80.

The Duke Bouchet Society, which supports STEM graduate students from underrepresented groups, sponsors an annual dinner named after Owens to honor her accomplishments.