Amazing Black Scientists

Daniel Sylak Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Article adapted from Live Science. View the original article here.

Black scientists have launched us into space, discovered new disease treatments and developed world-changing technologies, yet the achievements and contributions of Black people in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are too-often forgotten or unrecognized as a result of systemic racism. In honor of the #Strike4BlackLives, we’d like to introduce our readers to just a sample of the amazing Black scientists in the world. Here, you can learn more about the phenomenal work Black scientists do and have done every day.

Charles Drew (1904-1950)

Dr. Charles Drew sitting at his desk
(Image credit: Permission granted by Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution)

Dr. Charles Drew was a brilliant, pioneering doctor who developed new methods for storing blood for transfusions and created the first blood bank. Born in 1904 in Washington, D.C., Drew attended Amherst College in Massachusetts and then McGill University of Medicine in Montreal, and graduated in 1933, according to Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science. (He received a deferred acceptance to Harvard, which only admitted a handful of Black applicants a year, but did not want to wait.) At McGill, he earned the J. Francis Williams Fellowship, an award given to the top five students in the graduating class and studied under bacteriologist John Beattie, who was studying how fluid treatment could aid shock victims, according to the American Chemical Society.

After practicing medicine in Canada, in 1935 he earned an appointment to the pathology department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and rose the ranks to become chief surgical resident at Freedman’s Hospital, until transferring to Columbia University in 1938 to pursue his doctorate. He earned a prestigious fellowship to work under the well-known surgeon Allen Whipple. However, rather than training with Whipple in the surgical wards, where he would be interacting with white patients, he was sent to work with John Scudder, who had been given a grant to start the first blood bank. He earned a doctorate in medicine with a dissertation on banked blood that Scudder called “a masterpiece,” according to the ACS. 

As World War II raged, he began the work that would come to define his legacy. In 1940 he became the director of the “Blood for Britain” project, which would ship blood and plasma to help treat the civilians and soldiers who were fighting the Nazis, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Drew standardized the protocols for collecting and storing blood, ultimately helping to pilot a national blood-banking program in 1941. Drew made many innovations that are now mainstays of blood collections, such as mobile blood banks. Because of racism and segregation, however, the U.S. Army originally said Blacks could not donate blood. Even after this policy was lifted, Blacks could donate blood and plasma, but it could only be given to other Black people, according to the National Library of Medicine. Drew condemned these policies as unscientific and discriminatory. 

Drew died in 1950, in a car accident in North Carolina. Contrary to a persistent myth, he was treated by White doctors at a local hospital, and he was not denied a blood transfusion, according to the NLM.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)

A text from "A Book of Medical Discourses" by Rebecca Crumpler
(Image credit: Public Domain)

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman to earn a medical degree. She also wrote one of the country’s early medical textbooks, a guide for women and children entitled the “Book of Medical Discourses.” 

Crumpler was born in Delaware, but she spent much of her early years in Pennsylvania. Her experience there helped set her on the path to medicine. “Having been reared by a kind aunt in Pennsylvania, whose usefulness with the sick was continually sought, I early conceived a liking for, and sought every opportunity to relieve the sufferings of others,” Crumpler wrote in her seminal book. 

She began practicing as a nurse in 1852 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, before the profession required a specific training course. In 1860, she graduated from the New England Female Medical College, which closed down in 1873, according to the National Library of Medicine

After she completed her coursework, and after the Civil War, she moved to Richmond, Virginia, because she felt her skills would be most needed there. She served a community of 30,000 people, many of whom were freed slaves who otherwise had no access to medical care, according to the NLM. Crumpler also gained valuable experience treating diseases of women and children. After serving in Richmond for some years, “I returned to my former home, Boston, where I entered into the work with renewed vigor, practicing outside, and receiving children in the house for treatment; regardless, in a measure, of remuneration,” she wrote in her book. She wrote her medical text in 1883, after retiring from the practice of medicine, based on notes she had taken during her years as a doctor. Crumpler died in 1895.

Daniel Hale Williams (1856 – 1931)

Daniel Hale Williams, founder of Provident Hospital and heart surgery pioneer
(Image credit: Getty)

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams was the first cardiologist to successfully perform a tricky open heart surgery — the repair of the pericardium, the thin sac that encases the heart. Williams also founded the first Black-owned hospital in the country. Williams was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, the youngest of eight children, according to a biography from Jackson State University. After unrewarding stints as a barber and a shoemaker’s apprentice, Williams pursued medicine at the Chicago Medical College. 

He spent some years working in an integrated hospital in Chicago, while also working as an instructor at the Chicago Medical College, according to a biography from the Columbia Medical School’s Department of Surgery. In 1889, he was appointed to the state’s board of health. 

Williams felt it was important to have interracial hospitals, where Black and White doctors could learn together. So in 1891, Williams successfully opened the Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the first interracial hospital and nursing school in the country.

His pioneering surgery occurred in the summer of 1893. James Cornish, who had been stabbed in the chest, was brought to Provident Hospital, according to the Provident Foundation, which helps fund the hospital and preserve its legacy. In a hospital room crammed with other doctors who were observing, he cut open the cartilage between Cornish’s ribs and opened a “trapdoor” to the heart, according to Columbia’s Department of Surgery. From there, he sutured a punctured artery and sewed the pericardium. Williams had no option for blood transfusion, so he rinsed the wound with salt solution and held the wound together with forceps. Cornish walked out of the hospital 51 days later, and he would live another 20 years.

Williams soon became the head surgeon at the most prestigious hospital for Black patients, Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. In 1902, he performed another pioneering surgery on a damaged spleen. Williams continued to practice medicine well into his 70s, until he suffered a stroke in 1926. He then retired, until his death in 1931, according to the Provident Foundation.

Patricia Bath (born 1942)

Patricia Bath, pioneering ophthalmologist
(Image credit: Jemal Countess/Getty)

Dr. Patricia Bath is an American ophthalmologist and laser scientist. Bath became the first female ophthalmologist to be appointed to the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine Jules Stein Eye Institute, in 1974; the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States, in 1983; and the first female African American physician to receive a patent for a medical invention, in 1986. 

Bath was inspired at a young age to pursue a career in medicine after learning of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s service to the people of what is now Gabon, Africa, in the early 1900s, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine

While completing her medical training in New York City in 1969, Bath noticed that there were far more blind or visually impaired patients at the eye clinic in Harlem compared with the eye clinic at Columbia University. So, she conducted a study and found that the prevalence of blindness in Harlem was a result of the lack of access to eye care. To solve the problem, Bath proposed a new discipline, community ophthalmology, which trains volunteers to offer primary eye care to underserved populations. The concept is now employed worldwide and has saved the sight of thousands who would have otherwise gone undiagnosed and untreated.

As a female and Black faculty member at UCLA, Bath experienced numerous instances of sexism and racism. In 1977, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, an organization whose mission is to protect, preserve and restore sight. 

Bath’s research on cataracts led to her invention of a new method and device to remove cataracts, called the laserphaco probe. She earned a patent for the technology in 1986. Today, the device is used worldwide. 

Alexa Canady (born 1950)

Alexa Canady.
(Image credit: Public Domain)

Dr. Alexa Canady became the first African American woman neurosurgeon in the United States in 1981, according to Changing the Face of Medicine, an exhibition curated by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Canady decided to pursue neurosurgery while studying at the College of Medicine at the University of Michigan, where she graduated from in 1975. She became the first African American and first woman to be enrolled as a surgical intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital, as well as the first African American and first woman to graduate from the neurosurgical residency program at the University of Minnesota. 

“I had no idea that I would be making history,” she said in an interview with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Drawn to caring for children, Canady took a fellowship in pediatric neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and earned her certification from the American Board of Neurological Surgery in 1984 — as the first African American woman to do so.

“The children taught me so much — about living in the moment with tremendous courage and grace despite serious and often terminal illnesses,” Canady told the HHS. Canady was appointed chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in 1987, during which time she specialized in treating congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma and brain tumors. In addition to her clinical work, Canady raised money for disadvantaged patients in the Detroit area through fundraisers and sponsorships from charity organizations, and she also organized food and monetary donations through her hospital division, according to AANS Neurosurgeon

Canady retired to Florida in 2001 but still practiced part-time at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital until her official retirement in 2012.

Marie M. Daly (1921-2003)

Marie M. Daly
(Image credit: Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo)

Marie M. Daly became the first African American woman to earn a doctoral degree in chemistry when she graduated from Columbia University in 1947, according to the American Chemical Society.

While earning her Ph.D., Daly studied how compounds produced by organs such as the pancreas contribute to digestion, according to the Science History Institute. Daly went on to teach at Howard University for two years before pursuing postdoctoral research at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where her work received funding from the American Cancer Society. She would later join the research and teaching staffs of Queens College, City University of New York, Howard University, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well, according to Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Daly’s early research focused on how proteins assemble within cells, the structure and function of different components in the cell nucleus, and the chemistry of histones, proteins that provide structural support to condensed packets of DNA. After joining the departments of biochemistry and medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1960, she studied how cholesterol relates to hypertension (high blood pressure) and how muscle cells utilize creatine, an amino acid that plays an important role in energy consumption in muscles. She retired in 1986. 

Beyond the lab and the classroom, Daly worked to increase the enrollment of racial minorities in graduate science programs and medical school, and established a scholarship fund for African American science students at Queens College in her father’s name.

Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916)

Alicia Augusta Ball
(Image credit: Public domain)

Chemist Alice Augusta Ball developed a successful treatment for Hansen’s Disease, also known as leprosy, a bacterial infection that can result in severe nerve damage if left untreated, according to the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, her alma mater.

Ball earned a bachelor’s degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington before pursuing graduate work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, then the College of Hawaii. In 1915, Ball became the first woman to graduate from the college, where she earned a master’s degree in chemistry. She then became the first African American researcher and instructor in the College of Hawaii chemistry department. 

For her master’s thesis, Ball studied the chemical makeup of kava (Piper methysticum), a herb widely used across the Pacific for its sedative and calming effects, according to The National Society of Black Physicists. The work drew the attention of Dr. Harry Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at the Kalihi Hospital in Hawaii, who recruited Ball to help isolate active ingredients for a leprosy treatment. At the time, leprosy patients were routinely sent to an isolated colony in Hawaii, where the contagious disease could be contained and those infected hidden from sight, according to JSTOR Daily

Chaulmoogra oil, drawn from seeds of the Hydnocarpus wightianus tree, was the best known treatment for leprosy at the time, but the oil lost efficacy when given as a topical or oral treatment, and could not be easily absorbed when injected. Ball isolated compounds from the oil and chemically modified them to be water-soluble, and therefore easily absorbed by the human body, while still retaining their therapeutic effect. Ball’s injectable compound would become the treatment of choice for leprosy until new antimicrobial treatments were developed in the 1940s. 

But Ball died in 1916, when she was just 24 years old, before publishing her work. Arthur Dean, a chemist and the president of the University of Hawaii, went on to publish the research and manufacture injectable chaulmoogra oil without giving credit to Ball, according to JSTOR Daily. Hollmann published a report in 1922 that reclaimed credit for Ball, and recently, a short film called The Ball Method (2020) was released to showcase her breakthrough discovery.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

President Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as professional baseball player Willie Mays, right, looks on, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
(Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Katherine Johnson was a trailblazing mathematician whose work at NASA was critical for the first U.S. crewed space missions, including the first moon landing. Her accomplished life was the subject of the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.”

Johnson’s academic skill and love for numbers were clear from an early age — she graduated high school when she was just 14, and earned her college diploma when she was 18, according to NASA. She was hand-picked to be one of the first three Black students, and the first Black woman, to attend graduate school at West Virginia University in 1939.

In 1953, Johnson was hired by NASA as a human “computer” to perform mathematical calculations. She excelled at the agency with her curiosity and extraordinary skills. She began attending meetings that were previously for men only. In 1960, she was the first woman in the Flight Research Division to be credited as an author of a research report. In 1962, John Glenn requested that Johnson personally recheck calculations made by electronic computers (which were new at the time) before his mission, in which he would become the first American to orbit Earth. Johnson also performed calculations that helped land Apollo 11 on the moon and get the astronauts back to Earth. She continued to work for NASA until her retirement in 1986.

In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. She died on Feb. 24, 2020 at the age of 101.

Dorothy Vaughaun (1910-2008)

Dorothy Vaughan.
(Image credit: NASA on the Commons/Flickr)

Dorothy Vaughaun, a skilled mathematician and “computer,” became NASA’s first Black manager. Born in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, Vaughaun received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1929, according to NASA. She later pursued a career as a high school math teacher before, leaving her role to temporarily join the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia during World War II. 

This war-time job evolved into a permanent role processing aeronautical data when the lab started hiring Black women following a new executive order that prohibited discrimination in the defense industry, according to NASA. Vaughaun started working in the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA) segregated “West Area Computing” unit which was a group of all Black female mathematicians. She was eventually promoted to lead the group, according to NASA. 

She managed the group for nearly a decade, making major contributions to aeronautical research and becoming an advocate for Black women in her group and White computers in other groups. In 1958, when NACA transitioned to NASA, Vaughan and many other computers joined an integrated group of both men and women in the “Analysis and Computation Division.” She became an advanced programmer, according to NASA. Her life is detailed in the book and movie “Hidden Figures.”

Mary Jackson (1921-2005)

Mary Jackson
(Image credit: NASA)

Mary Jackson, a brilliant mathematician and aerospace engineer, became NASA’s first Black female engineer, according to NASA. Jackson was born in 1921 in Hampton, Virginia and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physician science from the Hampton Institute in 1942. 

She started her career as a math teacher at a Black school in Maryland, and after a handful of career changes, started working under Dorothy Vaughan (see above) at the  segregated West Area Computing section, along with Vaughaun and Johnson. Her accomplishments were also chronicled in the book “Hidden Figures.”

After two years working as a “computer,” Jackson was offered a job working in a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel called the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, according to NASA. After attending a training program, with special permission to attend classes with White students, she was promoted from mathematician to engineer, becoming NASA’s first black female engineer in 1958, according to NASA. She then spent nearly two decades authoring or co-authoring around a dozen research papers, mostly about airflow around airplanes.

Jackson also loved helping others, according to NASA. In the 1970s, she worked with students at Hampton’s King Street Community center to build a wind tunnel and use it for experiments. “We have to do something like this to get them interested in science,” she said in an article for the local newspaper, according to NASA. “Sometimes they are not aware of the number of Black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.”

Christine Darden (born 1942)

Christine Darden
(Image credit: NASA)

Christine Darden, born in 1942 in North Carolina, was a skilled mathematician, data analyst and aeronautical engineer. After working at NASA for over 40 years, she became one of the world’s experts on sonic boom prediction, sonic boom minimization and supersonic wing design, according to NASA. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a teaching certificate, before working as a teacher in Portsmouth, Virginia and at a Virginia State College.

In 1967, Darden, whose life was also chronicled in the book “Hidden Figures,” became a “human computer” for NASA’s Langley Research Center (Darden was not depicted in the “Hidden Figures” movie.) After 8 years, she approached her supervisor and asked why men with the same level of education as she had were hired as engineers while she wasn’t, according to NASA. Shortly after, she was transferred to the engineering section, where her first assignment was to write a computer program for sonic boom, according to NASA.

She spent the next 25 years working on sonic boom minimization. In 1983, she earned a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering at George Washington University and in 1989 she became the technical leader of NASA’s Sonic Boom Group of the Vehicle Integration Branch of the High Speed Research Program. In 1999, she became the director of the Program Management Office of the Aerospace Performing Center. Throughout her career, she also served as a technical consultant on government and private projects and authored more than 50 papers in high-lift wing design. 

Now, she encourages people, including her children, her grandchildren and her great grandchildren to always be curious. “I was able to stand on the shoulders of those women who came before me, and women who came after me were able to stand on mine,” Darden said, according to NASA.

Louis R. Purnell, Jr. (1920-2001)

Louis Purnell, Jr.
(Image credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image # SIA2008-3012.)

Louis R. Purnell, Jr., a fighter pilot and speech therapist, became the first Black curator to work at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

While studying for his undergraduate degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Purnell earned a private pilot license. Purnell then became a Tuskegee Airmen, according to the Smithsonian. In 1943, Purnell joined the all-Black 99th Fighter Squadron, climbed to the rank of captain and completed two tours of duty in North Africa and southern Italy during World War II, according to the Los Angeles Times

After the war, Purnell graduated from Howard University and became a speech therapist, according to the Chicago Tribune. In 1961, he dove into the world of science at the Smithsonian, working in the Museum of Natural History’s paleobiology and oceanography divisions. He worked with specimens and took part in collection trips. Even without a background in biology, he published a catalogue of invertebrate fossil specimen, according to the Smithsonian. He studied geology at The George Washington University and became an ace at identifying nautiloids, a large group of cephalopods.

However, discrimination meant he was passed over for promotions, so Purnell transferred to the National Air and Space Museum. There too, he faced racism in the Aeronautics Department, so he took a position in the Astronautics Department. The timing was perfect; he started in 1968, just in time for the 1969 moon landing. 

Purnell directed the removal of Apollo 4 and the placement of the Apollo 11 Command Module, and crafted other exhibits, including one on spacecraft and spacesuits. He died of cancer in 2001. 

Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941) 

Ernest Everett Just was an American biologist who conducted pioneering research in cell physiology, embryonic development and fertilization. Just’s experiments using eggs from marine invertebrates showed the importance of the egg’s surface in the process of fertilization and development, according to Arizona State University.

Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1883. By age 15, he had graduated from the Colored Normal Industrial Agricultural and Mechanics College at Orangeburg (now South Carolina State College) and was qualified to teach at any Black school in South Carolina. However, at the time, teaching did not appeal to him, so he moved north to enroll in Kimball Union Academy, a college-preparatory high school in New Hampshire. Afterwards, he attended Dartmouth College, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1907. Just then began teaching at Howard University, where he would later become the head of the school’s new Department of Zoology, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Just was then invited to be a research assistant at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he would end up conducting research nearly every summer for 20 years. Just went on to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, making him one of the first Black men to receive a doctoral degree from a major university, according to the University of Chicago.

In 1915, Just was awarded the very first National Association for the Advancement Colored People (NAACP) Spingarn medal for outstanding achievement by a Black American. 

However, racial discrimination in the U.S. limited Just’s career and research opportunities, and in 1929, he began research in Europe. After the outbreak of World War II, Just returned the United States. He died in 1941 of pancreatic cancer.

Emmett Chappelle (1925-2019)

Photo of Dr. Emmett Chapelle.
(Image credit: NASA)

Emmett Chappelle was an American biochemist who made groundbreaking discoveries in the understanding and application of bioluminescence, or the ability of living organisms to produce light.

Chappelle was born in Phoenix, and after graduation from high school, he was drafted into the army during World War II. When he returned to the United States, he earned an associate’s degree in electrical engineering from Phoenix College, and then enrolled at the University of California Berkeley, where he graduated with a degree in biology in 1950, according to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Chappelle went on to earn a master’s degree at the University of Washington and started a Ph.D. at Stanford University.

Chappelle left Stanford when he was offered a position at the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in Maryland, where he studied ways to ensure breathable air for astronauts. In 1963, Chappelle began work at Hazleton Laboratories in Virginia, which held contracts with NASA. There, he studied ways to detect extraterrestrial life on planets like Mars. It was here that Chappelle invented a revolutionary scientific test known as the ATP fluorescent assay, which detects living cells by making them glow. 

Chappelle’s test employs the same two chemicals used by fireflies to produce light, luciferin and luciferase. When these chemicals are combined with the compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is found in all living cells, they produce light. His test would go on to have widespread applications in agriculture and medicine. Chappelle was awarded NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1994. He died in 2019 at the age of 93.

George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943)

George Washington Carver in 1910
(Image credit: Public domain)

No, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter (the Incas beat him to that by about 2,000 years). But during his long tenure at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, Carver did invent more than 100 recipes and 300 products derived from America’s favorite nut. (Of these, he patented only three, remarking “it is simply service that measures success.”)

Carver’s legume legacy often overshadows his other amazing achievements. Born into slavery sometime in 1864, George spent his early life on the Missouri plantation of Moses and Susan Carver. By age 13, George had lost his biological father, was kidnapped, sold by raiders in Kentucky, permanently separated from his mother and sister, and finally transported back to Missouri to become Moses and Susan’s foster son. The Carvers taught George to read, and in their kitchen garden he became versed in herbal medicine, pesticides, fertilizers and enough agricultural know-how to earn the nickname “the plant doctor.”

In 1888, Carver enrolled as the first Black student at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. In 1894, he became the first Black student to earn a Bachelor of Science degree at Iowa State Agricultural School (now Iowa State University). Carver remained there as faculty for two years, where he described several new species of soybean-attacking fungi (two of which were subsequently named after him).

In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited Carver to become a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, where Carver taught for the rest of his life. Here, he honed his implementation of crop rotation, urging poor farmers to plant peanuts and other legumes to restore nitrogen to the soil depleted by cotton crops. Beyond improved cotton yields, the method gave farmers more peanuts than they knew what to do with. In a series of agricultural bulletins, Carver provided them with hundreds of recipes for peanut products, including peanut flour, paste, paper, soap, shaving cream and even laxatives.

From 1923 to 1933, Carver served as Speaker for the United States Commission on Interracial Cooperation. In 1935, he was named head of the Division of Plant Mycology and Disease Survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. By 1938, largely due to Carver’s influence, peanuts had grown to be a $200-million-per-year crop in the United States, Live Science previously reported. He died at age 79 on January 5, 1943 — a day now designated George Washington Carver Recognition Day by Congressional decree.

Gladys West (born 1930)

Gladys West was inducted into the Space and Missiles Pioneers Hall of Fame in 2018.
(Image credit: Adrian Cadiz, courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Gladys West was key in developing the GPS technology that allows satellites to locate you anywhere on Earth — and yet, she herself remained a “Hidden Figure” for more than five decades.

West was born as Gladys Mae Brown in 1930 in Sutherland, Virginia — part of a rural county south of Richmond. Not eager to work in the tobacco fields or factories where her family worked, West devoted herself to her education. When she graduated as valedictorian from her high school, she won a full-ride scholarship to Virginia State College, where she earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in mathematics by 1955.

When she began working at a military base in Dahlgren, Virginia known as the Naval Proving Ground (now called the Naval Surface Warfare Center), West was the second Black female ever hired there and one of just four Black employees. She started as a human computer, solving complex equations longhand, before becoming a programmer on some of the earliest supercomputers. In the 1960s, West participated in award-winning research that proved the regularity of Pluto’s orbit relative to Neptune (for every two orbits that Pluto makes around the sun, Neptune makes three). Beginning in the 1970s, she programmed an IBM computer to precisely model the irregular shape of Earth (also known as the geoid). The data generated by West’s complex algorithms ultimately became the basis for the Global Positioning System (GPS).

West’s contribution to the now-ubiquitous technology went largely unrecognized until she casually mentioned it in a speech to her former sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, just a few years ago. Following an Associated Press profile of her in 2018, the U.S. Air Force published a press release finally paying tribute to her accomplishments.

Mae C. Jemison (born 1956)

Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-47) onboard photo of Astronaut Mae Jemison working in Spacelab-J module.
(Image credit: NASA)

In 1992, when the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off, NASA astronaut Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to reach space. But astronaut is just one of her many titles. Jemison is also a physician, a Peace Corps volunteer, a teacher, a jazz dancer and choreographer, and a founder and president of two technology companies, according to Space.com, a Live Science sister site.

Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on Oct. 17, 1956. When she was 3 years old, she moved with her family to Chicago, where her love for science took off. At age 16, the aspiring scientist attended Stanford University, where she earned degrees in chemical engineering and African and African American studies. She got her doctorate in medicine from Cornell University in New York in 1981. As a Peace Corps volunteer, Jemison spent time in Sierra Leone and Liberia. 

After training with NASA, Jemison and six other astronauts orbited Earth 126 times on the Endeavour. During her 190 hours in space, Jemison helped carry out two experiments on bone cells, and an investigation into how tadpoles develop in zero gravity. The personal belongings she carried into space are included an Alvin Ailey dance poster, a West African statuette and a Michael Jordan jersey.

Jemison is also a polyglot, speaking English, Russian, Japanese and Swahili. In 1993, she appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even has a Lego figurine made in her honor.

Brian Nord

Astrophysicist Brian Nord speaking at the Becoming Interplanetary seminar in 2018.
(Image credit: U.S. Library of Congress)

Brian Nord is an astrophysicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois. He’s the third and youngest Black physicist to hold a position at Fermilab, a U.S. Department of Energy lab that’s been in operation since 1967. Nord also holds positions at the University of Chicago and is the co-founder of the Deep Skies Lab, a multi-institutional group of astrophysicists and deep learning experts.

Nord is a native of Wisconsin, and holds degrees in physics from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. He’s currently part of Fermilab’s Machine Learning group, which focuses on using artificial intelligence to solve problems in astronomy and physics. 

Nord has a proven track record of supporting science education and diversity in STEM. He’s the organizer of Space Explorers, a program at the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago that helps underrepresented minorities in high school experience physics through hands-on activities outside the classroom. He is also a co-creator of ThisIsBlackLight.com, a website with helpful content and resources to help explain the Black experience in America.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein 

Cosmologist and theoretical physicist Chanda Presco-Weinstein speaking at the Becoming Interplanetary seminar in 2018.
(Image credit: U.S. Library of Congress)

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) who studies theoretical and observational physics. In addition to being a researcher and professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at UNH, she’s also a faculty member in the university’s Women’s Studies Department and a contributor to many popular science publications. 

Prescod-Weinstein is originally from East Los Angeles, California and has earned degrees in physics and astronomy from Harvard College, the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Waterloo in Canada. In 2010, she became the 69th Black American woman to receive a doctorate degree in physics, according to a 2015 profile of her in the Huffington Post.

Among her many research interests is studying axions (theoretical subatomic particles) and their relationship to dark matter; universe inflation; and quantum field theory. Since 2016, she’s been the principal investigator for a project funded by the Foundational Questions Institute called Epistemological Schemata of Astro|Physics: A Reconstruction of Observers. The project aims to discover ways to increase diversity in physics and astronomy by understanding the history of how ideas in those fields have been created and affected participation from minority groups. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson speaking on stage during the NYC Climate Strike rally and demonstration on Sept. 20, 2019.
(Image credit: Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and policy specialist. She is the founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for companies seeking ocean conservation solutions, and the founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal communities. She’s also an adjunct professor at New York University. 

Johnson is a Brooklyn, New York native and earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University and a doctorate in marine biology from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. In 2013, she invented a fish trap that reduces bycatch, which won National Geographic’s first Solution Search award.

Johnson is involved with numerous ocean and conservation non-profit organizations and was a co-director of the global March for Science movement. She has also served as a policy advisor for Elizabeth Warren and helped create the Blue New Deal, a climate policy for the oceans. 

In August of this year, she’ll be launching a podcast about climate science and policy, and in 2021, she’ll release her first book about climate solutions that incorporate science, policy, culture and justice.

Annie Easley (1933-2011)

Annie Easley was a “human computer,” a computer scientist, an applied mathematician and a career NASA researcher. 

She got her start computing — doing mathematical calculations by hand, a critical research task before widespread digital technology — at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1955, three years before it was dissolved into NASA. Easley did her first work in a Birmingham, Alabama laboratory helping design a nuclear reactor, according to NASA.

Over time, Easley became, in NASA’s words, an “adept computer programmer.” She wrote code that was used in complex energy systems — including early hybrid-electric vehicles and the high-energy Centaur upper-stage rocket . Centaur was first used in 1963 and remained in regular use for satellites and space probes until 1997, when a final Centaur was used to boost the Cassini probe toward Saturn, according to NASA.

While Easley’s colleagues received scholarships from NASA, Easley herself never did. Eventually, in 1977, she enrolled at Cleveland State University (CSU) on her own dime, according to the CSU Alumni Association. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics while working full-time.

At that point she was already an established researcher, publishing multiple papers for NASA on theoretical nuclear-fueled rocket engines and other alternative energy systems. This one, published by NASA in 1972, showed how coolant could be heated up by a nuclear furnace to propel a rocket.

Before retiring in 1989, Easley added the role of equal employment opportunity counselor to her long NASA resume, dealing with issues of discrimination in the agency. She’s also credited with creating a “stir” at the agency that helped normalize pantsuits (as opposed to skirts and dresses) for women working there.

Vernard Lewis

Vernard Lewis was the first African American entomologist at the University of California Berkeley.
(Image credit: UCANR)

“During recess, while other kids were kicking balls, I was catching grasshoppers and feeding them to harvester ants.”

Vernard Lewis‘ fascination with insects began as a child, he said in a 2017 newsletter interview for the University of California Berkeley. This youthful interest sparked a 35-year career as an entomologist specializing in urban pest insects; Lewis earned his doctoral degree at the University of California at Berkeley and joined the faculty in 1991 as the school’s first Black entomologist.

At UC Berkeley, Lewis famously constructed a 400-square-foot (37-square-meter) wooden building near the campus for investigating pest insect detection and control; The structure was affectionately known as “Villa Termiti.” Built in 1993, the building temporarily housed rotating communities of bedbugs, termites, beetles and ants, while Lewis and other scientists studied the insects’ habits and tested their resistance to different methods of extermination. These included exposure to X-rays, microwaves, liquid nitrogen and fumigation, according to UC Berkeley.

Lewis also worked to promote diversity in entomology, and participated in outreach programs to introduce underserved youth to life sciences, insects and biodiversity. He was one of 20 researchers featured in the book “Memoirs of Black Entomologists,” published by the Entomological Society of America (ESA) in 2015 to encourage minority students to pursue careers in science.

By the time Lewis retired in July 2017 — with emeritus status at UC Berkeley — he had delivered more than 700 presentations on insect pests such as cockroaches, termites and bedbugs, and had published about 150 scientific studies, according to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Alexandra Jones

Alexandra Jones served as Field School Director for the PBS archaeology series "Time Team America."
(Image credit: PBS)

“I am passionate about empowering future generations through the knowledge and perspectives only archaeology can provide,” archaeologist Alexandra Jones told Howard University’s Howard Magazine.

An undergraduate course at Howard University introduced Jones to archaeology, and she earned a doctorate degree in historical archaeology at the UC at Berkeley. In 2009, Lewis founded the nonprofit Archaeology in the Community in her hometown of Washington, D.C., to further public understanding of archaeology through educational programs and workshops, and to make the study of archaeology more accessible to young people.

Lewis reached an even bigger audience of archaeology enthusiasts as a field school director for the PBS documentary series “Time Team America.” On the show, Lewis worked with students in high school and middle school highlighting research conducted at North American archaeological sites — some of which recorded human activity dating to the Ice Age.

Lewis is also an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore and an assistant professor at Baltimore City Community College. 

“My advice to future archeologists is to follow your dreams,” Jones told Howard Magazine. “Do what you love and what you are passionate about. And most importantly, be patient.”

Danielle Lee

Danielle N. Lee was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2017.
(Image credit: National Geographic/Photo by Laura M. Boykin)

Biologist Danielle N. Lee, an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, researches animal behavior and how it is shaped by ecology and evolution, particularly in small rodents in both urban and rural environments. She initially studied tiny meadow voles because “they’re relatively easy to work with, and they’re readily available,” Lee told National Geographic in 2017. “They offer an opportunity to look at a lot of complex behaviors.”

Lee’s scientific work has also taken her to Tanzania, where she investigates African giant pouched rats (Cricetomys ansorgei), which can grow to be as large as a domestic cat. Though these rodents are well-known locally, little has been recorded about their behavior and natural history, Lee says. Information collected by Lee and other scientists is helping to illuminate how these rats interact with each other and with humans, and could inform breeding programs for researchers who train these large rodents to sniff out hidden landmines, according to Nat Geo. 

Lee also advocates for diversity in the sciences. She is a founder of the National Science and Technology News Service, a media advocacy group to increase interest in STEM and science news coverage within the African-American community, and she was a White House Champion of Change in STEM Diversity and Access. Lee was also honored as a Diversity Scholar by the American Institute of Biological Sciences in 2009, and in a 2019 TED talk, she explains how she uses hip-hop to connect people with science.

“I would like to see media do a better job of showing role models from a variety of groups,” Lee told Nat Geo. “What I do isn’t so much to convince people to become a scientist. It’s to clarify for them that they are already scientifically minded. And that’s pretty revolutionary, particularly when you think about working with students of color from under-resourced schools.”

Percy L Julian (1899 -1975)

A commemorative stamp issued by the United States Postal Service
(Image credit: United States Post Office)

Percy Lavon Julian was a chemist who pioneered the science of producing medicinal chemicals using plants.

The first major chemical Julian synthesized was physostigmine. The substance appears naturally in calabar beans, but no one had ever yet managed to create it — or anything similar — in a laboratory, according to the American Chemical Society (ACS). That was a big deal because physostigmine is a critical drug for treating glaucoma, an illness that causes blindness.

Physostigmine was complicated to produce, particularly with the equipment and knowledge available in the 1930s. Julian, then a research associate at DePauw University in Indiana, and his collaborators worked toward the drug’s development in several steps. At one point, another team based at Oxford University claimed to have accomplished one of the steps by a different method, producing a chemical precursor of physostigmine known as d,l-eserethole.

“Julian risked his yet-unproven reputation and boldly wrote in the fourth paper in the series that the work of [the Oxford team] was in error,” the ACS wrote.

Julian was never offered a faculty position at DePauw despite his excellent qualifications according to DePauw. He was also turned down for a position at the private company DuPont for explicitly racist reasons. He took a job at Glidden Company directing research into soybean proteins for 18 years. In that time, he developed a number of patents, including for synthesizing the hormones progesterone and testosterone from soybean oil. He also developed a new, far cheaper method for synthesizing the steroid cortisone, according to DePauw, which is used to treat arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.

In the 1950s, Julian founded Julian Laboratories and moved to Oak Park, Illinois. His family was the first Black family to move to the affluent Chicago suburb, and his home was bombed, according to The New York Times. He was also throughout his career recognized as a consistent advocate for human rights, according to ACS.

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)

This woodcut was created for the cover of Banneker's Almanac.
(Image credit: Public Domain)

Benjamin Banneker was a mathematician, astronomer, farmer, and surveyor who was born in England’s American colonies and lived through the early years of the United States.

Banneker’s father was a former slave who his mother — herself the daughter of a former slave on the one hand and of an English colonist on the other — had purchased, freed, and married, according to a biography by Scott Williams, a mathematician at the University of Buffalo.

Despite lacking a formal education in his subjects, Banneker became known for his skill in mathematics and astronomy.

He “successfully predicted the solar eclipse that occurred on April 14, 1789, contradicting the forecasts of prominent mathematicians and astronomers of the day,” Williams wrote.

In 1791, president George Washington appointed Banneker to a three-man team assigned to survey the site that would become Washington D.C.

In that same period, according to Haverford College, he began work on his most famous project: Banneker’s Almanac. The six volumes published between 1792 and 1797 included information about astronomy, medicine, future eclipses — as well as subjects like astrology that are no longer considered scientific, according to ThoughtCo.

Banneker wrote a 12-page letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1971, the secretary of state and future president who advocated white supremacy and argued that Black people were inferior. Enclosing his first almanac, he attacked Jefferson’s “absurd and false ideas” and wrote that “…however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversifyed in Situation or colour, we are all of the Same Family, and Stand in the Same relation to him [God].”

James E. West (Born in 1931)

James E. West, 89, is pictured here in 2019 holding one of his team's inventions: a smart stethoscope.
(Image credit: Sonavi Labs/CC BY-SA 4.0)

James West is an inventor, former Bell Laboratories engineer, and physicist at John Hopkins University.

West’s most famous invention is the foil electret microphone, now the most commonly used microphone in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University (JHU). The device — which West designed with collaborator Gerhard Sessler — was originally designed for a team of acoustical psychologists who needed small and sensitive instruments to study human hearing, according to the African American History Program (AAHP) of the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering. The compact, inexpensive device West and Sessler designed is now used in applications ranging from cell phones to hearing aids to professional music equipment.

West has continued to research microphones and other acoustic technologies “for air and water” applications, according to JHU, and has also written numerous books and papers on solid-state physics and materials science.

Capping his many professional honors, according to AAHP, West was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the United States’ “highest award for technological innovation.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the birth year of Dr. Charles Drew.

Originally published on Live Science.

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