Our world would look very different without the scientists who have made breakthroughs in our technology and advanced our understanding of medicine, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. During Black History Month, learn about these Black scientists who made history with their monumental contributions to scientific advancement despite obstacles of racial injustice.
Katherine Johnson exhibited exceptional mathematical abilities from very early on in her life. In 1958, after years of working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), she began her extraordinary NASA career. In 1960, she became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report.
Many NASA engineers depended on Johnson’s masterful math aptitude and even had her hand-verify computer-calculated flight trajectories. According to NASA, Johnson recalls Astronaut John Glenn saying about her before a spaceflight, “If she says [the calculations] are good, then I’m ready to go.”
In 2015, Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S.
Mary Jackson was NASA’s first Black female engineer. For nearly two decades, she researched and published dozens of reports before leaving engineering to pursue ways to improve opportunities for future female scientists. According to NASA, she accepted a position as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, where she worked to improve women’s hiring and advancement opportunities at NASA.
Jackson was also a great humanitarian who dedicated much of her life to mentoring, volunteering, and serving others.
Dorothy Vaughan was NASA’s first Black American supervisor and one of its few female supervisors. As the head of NACA’s West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958, she made vital contributions to the U.S. space program and became a well-respected mathematician and computer programmer. According to the Smithsonian, her team of Black American women, known as “The West Computers,” blazed a trail for future scientists of all races.
The next time you make a phone call, you can thank Walker Lincoln Hawkins!
After becoming the first Black American to join the technical staff at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories, he invented a durable plastic sheath to protect telephone cables through rain, shine, and snow.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, Hawkins’ invention made universal telephone service possible and earned him a spot in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Gladys West was well-respected for her mind for mathematics and her ability to solve challenging math problems by hand. She became a skilled computer programmer once computers could make reliable calculations. According to Britannica, one of her many accomplishments was her work on the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC), the most sophisticated and powerful computer of its time.
West built a robust computer system to model the Earth by programming it to use satellite orbits and account for natural forces. This is the technology that allows your GPS to work so that you can pinpoint your location nearly anywhere on Earth.
Edward Bouchet was the first Black American to get a Ph.D. in Physics and the sixth person ever to earn that doctorate from any American university. According to the American Physical Society, he was also the first Black student to graduate from Yale.
Bouchet was always a strong advocate of science education. He taught science in the classroom for decades and gave additional scientific lectures to students, staff, and the public.
Ten years after graduating from medical school at the University of Michigan, Canady became the first Black American woman to become a neurosurgeon in the United States.
Canady’s twenty-year pediatric neurosurgery career saved thousands of children’s lives. Her monumental accomplishments earned her two honorary doctorate degrees and, according to the National Institute of Health, numerous awards, including the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award and an induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
With fellow inventor Gerhard Sessler, James West created the first electret microphone. The microphone was revolutionary because it was much more lightweight, inexpensive, and sensitive than other microphones at the time. The electret microphone is still used in music recording equipment, smartphones, laptops, and hearing aid devices. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, 90% of today’s microphones are electret.
James West’s invention earned him an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.
A gifted mathematician and quick learner, David Harold Blackwell significantly contributed to game theory, probability theory, information theory, and Bayesian Statistics. In the mid-50s, he was appointed Chairman of the Statistics Department at the University of California Berkeley.
According to Britannica, Blackwell created two theorems, the Blackwell Renewal Theorem, which models the behavior of long sequences of random events, and the Rao-Blackwell Theorem, which helps statisticians improve the accuracy of their estimators. Blackwell received many accolades for his work, including the John von Neumann Theory Prize and the National Medal of Science.