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Celebrating Black History Month: 14 Black Scientists Who Changed the World

By Beth Clark • February 20, 2019

Black history IS history, and Black History Month is a time to celebrate both contemporary and traditional black history, beginning with a nod to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the scholar who established what we now celebrate in an effort to collect, document, and backfill all of the history that was missing because it never made it into the books. Below are 14 scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who have made significant contributions to furthering the human race for people of all color.

14 Black Scientists You Need to Know About

Stephon Alexander: Theoretical physicist Dr. Stephon Alexander is brilliant, talented, personable, and—pun intended—multidimensional. In addition to consulting on A Wrinkle in Time to make sure the science was believable on the big screen, Alexander is also a saxophonist and author of The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe. He specializes in the interface between cosmology, particle physics and quantum gravity…AND he can tell you why Coltrane is like Einstein. Alexander has also given a TEDx talk, collaborated with Deepak Chopra for Cosmic Jazz & Quantum Consciousness, and won multiple awards. His day job (!) is teaching Physics and Astronomy as an associate professor at Dartmouth.

St. Elmo Brady: Dr. Brady was the first African American in history to earn a PhD in chemistry when he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1916, and the first to be admitted to Phi Lambda Upsilon, the national chemistry honor society. During his 40-year career, he taught at four black colleges and published important research on organic acids, infrared spectroscopy, and halogen compounds.

W.E.B. DuBois was a sociologist, writer, historian, civil rights activist, Pan-Africanist, editor, and professor who forever changed the way Americans think, redefining much of what they thought they knew. He was also the first black man to earn a PhD from Harvard, a founder of the NAACP, and the prolific author of books like The Souls of Black Folk. After spending eight years to research and write it, David Levering Lewis won the Pulitzer for W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, which covered more than fifty years in its coverage of his intense career and his life.

Ronald McNair: McNair was a NASA astronaut and MIT-educated physicist with a 6th degree black belt in taekwondo, four honorary doctorates, and several fellowships who was nationally recognized for his work in laser physics. Sadly, after successfully becoming the second African American in space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1984, McNair was killed when it disintegrated 73 seconds after liftoff two years later.

Bettye Washington Greene: After attending segregated public schools in Texas and earning her BS in Alabama, Bettye Washington married Air Force Captain William Greene and moved to Detroit, where she earned her PhD in physical chemistry. She was elected to Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, and following her dissertation, she became the first African American woman to join Dow Chemical in a professional capacity. Greene worked at the company's EC Britton Research Laboratory in Midland, Michigan for the next 25 years, specializing in polymers and latex products, for which she holds a number of patents.

Ruth Smith Lloyd: a 20th-century scientist who specialized in fertility, the female sex cycle, and the relationship of sex hormones to growth, Dr. Lloyd was the first African American woman in history to be awarded a PhD in anatomy. She married her husband—a physician—prior to graduating, and subsequently joined Howard University's medical faculty, teaching anatomy and physiology for the next 35 years and raising three kids along the way.

Gladys West: a mathematician who leveraged her mathematical and programming expertise to invent an accurate model of the Earth that helped lead to the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Only the second black woman ever to be employed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame—one of the highest honors awarded by the Air Force.

Lonnie G. Johnson: a nuclear engineer who was a senior systems engineer on NASA's Galileo Project and worked on stealth technology for the U.S. Air Force. BUT…that's now what Johnson is famous for, the Super Soaker water gun is. An avid inventor, Johnson holds over 120 US patents, including one for a diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when it's soiled, hair rollers that set without heat, and the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC), an advanced heat engine that could convert solar energy into electricity with twice the efficiency of existing methods. Still a work-in-progress, the JTEC has the potential to make solar power competitive with coal, fulfilling the dream of efficient, renewable solar energy.

Alexa Canady, MD: As the first black female neurosurgeon in the United States, Alexa Canady was also the first black female to be certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. She specialized in pediatric neurosurgery and became the director of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan, which in turn became one of the best in the country. In addition to her medical degree, she holds two honorary degrees: a doctorate of humane letters from the University of Detroit-Mercy, and a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Southern Connecticut. She was inducted into the Michigan Woman's Hall of Fame and received the American Medical Women's Association President's Award.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: As the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of America's best-known astrophysicists, making him the default favorite for many. His fascination for the universe is contagious and he somehow deconstructs the most complex concepts in a way that brings them almost within the grasp of being understood. Also, he's got a stellar sense of humor…who else could write a book on the infinite complexities of the cosmos and call it Death by Black Hole?

THE HIDDEN FIGURES GIRLS

Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Christine Darden are in a special category of their own for a couple of reasons, the first being that they're black AND women AND scientists…all challenges in the aerospace industry. NASA, specifically. From the end of World War II and on through the height of the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the Vietnam War, the cold war, and beyond, beginning at a time when computers didn't exist, through the implementation of the first giant supercomputers to the tiniest laptops, these women have seen and experienced things that no other humans in history have before or will in the future. (If you don't at least know who the first three are, start here.)

As African American women worked for NASA as 'human computers,' Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson were depicted in the movie Hidden Figures, based on Margot Lee Shetterley's book of the same name. As the youngest hidden figure by a decade-ish, Darden is in the book but wasn't in the screen adaptation. In addition to being pioneers, they were critical to the development of the US aerospace program and safety of the first Americans in orbit.

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician, left her job as a math teacher to work for the all-black computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics' Langley laboratory. Her husband died three years later, making her a widow with three daughters, but the biggest trajectory change (pun intended) in Johnson's life came with the Soviet launch of Sputnik. The space race was on, NACA became NASA, and she was tasked with calculating the flight path for Alan Shepard—the first American in orbit. (She also became the first woman at NASA to be credited as the author of a research report.) A complex network of IBM computers had been installed, but a leery Captain John Glenn asked Johnson to check the calculations. She later did the same for the Apollo 13 astronauts, and much more, finally retiring from NASA after 33 years. In 2015, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She's is still living, by the way…she turned 100 on August 26, 2018!

Dorothy Vaughan, also a mathematician who left her job as a math teacher, was the supervisor of NACA's all-black West Area Computing section at Langley and taught herself FORTRAN as the use of computers was adopted. FORTRAN = Formula + Translation, a compiled imperative programming language, which Vaughan became an expert in, making her indispensable to NASA's Analysis and Computation Division (ACD). Vaughan held her head high in the face of racism, discrimination, and sometimes seemingly endless challenges, but ultimately, math won, and she retired from NASA after 28 years. Oh, and while she was doing all that, she raised six kids, and when she died at the age of 98 in 2008, she also had ten grandkids, and fourteen great-grandkids.

Mary Jackson had a dual degree in math and physical sciences, also having taught math at one point. Her path was less direct than Johnson and Vaughan's, having also been a receptionist, bookkeeper, stay-at-home mom, and secretary before making her way to the all-black West Area Computing section. From there, she was offered the opportunity to enter a NASA engineer training program but required special permission from the city to participate in since classes were held a segregated high school. So not only was she female, she was black, neither of which deterred her on the path to becoming NASA's first black female engineer. However, after 21 years of being passed over for management promotions despite an impeccable career, Jackson opted to leave engineering for a position as Langley's Federal Women's Program Manager. Hoping to affect changes in hiring and promoting for future generations of female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists at NASA, she and her husband even opened their home to Langley recruits who needed help finding solid footing in their new careers. Jackson raised a son and a daughter, eventually passing away in 2005 at the age of 83.

Dr. Christine Darden is a mechanical engineer who specialized in aerodynamics and was a leader in sonic boom reduction. Still in high school during the film's timeframe, she too began her NASA career as a hidden figure. Things were integrated racially by the time she got there and overt discrimination against women had been reduced but working in an environment surrounded by white men still had its challenges. During her 40 years at NASA, Darden was awarded a certificate for outstanding performance 10 times and highlighted as one of seven inventors whose contributions to the space program were significant. She was also inducted into the Engineering Hall of Fame last year at her alma mater, George Washington University.

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