It Happened at Michigan — ‘You’ve got to be excellent’


Willie Hobbs first stepped foot on the University of Michigan campus as an 18-year-old first-year student in 1952. She and an older sister, who was attending Fisk University, were the first in their family to attend college.

Twenty years later, as Willie Hobbs Moore, she was a three-time U-M alumna and the first African American woman in the country with a Ph.D. in physics.

A photo of Willie Hobbs Moore
Willie Hobbs Moore in 1972, the year she became the first African American woman in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in physics. (Ann Arbor District Library)

Moore came to U-M from Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she had excelled in high school, both in and out of the classroom. She was the first Black woman at U-M to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering in 1958 and 1961.

For the next several years, she worked for technology firms and U-M’s Institute of Science and Technology. She also married Sidney L. Moore, a U-M graduate teaching mathematics and science at University Hospital’s Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Willie Hobbs Moore began her doctoral degree in physics in 1966, studying under Professor Samuel Krimm, a pioneer in vibrational spectroscopy methods. She received a Ph.D. in 1972, when African American students made up 5% of the student body. She remained at U-M as a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer with the Macromolecular Research Center.

She next took her talents to Ford Motor Company, where she rose to the executive level and promoted engineering and manufacturing quality standards used by Japanese automakers. In 1991, Ebony magazine included her in its 100 “Most Promising Black Women in Corporate America.”

A photo of Willie Hobbs Moore
Willie Hobbs Moore in 1991, when she was an executive at Ford Motor Company focused on quantifying quality in engineering and manufacturing. (Ann Arbor District Library)

Moore was a devoted science and math tutor of young people in Ann Arbor. Her mantra was simple yet powerful: “You’ve got to be excellent.”

She died of cancer in 1994 at age 59.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Willie Hobbs Moore Achievement Award, presented by the U-M Women in Science and Engineering office. The College of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering also sponsors the Willie Hobbs Moore Distinguished Alumni Lecture.


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