February is Black History Month and as a science blog, we’d like to highlight some exceptional Black scientists who have made tremendous contributions to society. From inventing hundreds of uses for peanuts, to helping man land on the moon, to being the first black woman in space, these scientists have made indelible marks on science. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list but we hope to also point towards a few key resources if you’d like to learn more.
“I have always held that Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering and I know of no other invention that has brought so great a saving to all branches of chemical engineering.” – Charles A. Browne, sugar chemist, S. Department of Agriculture (Image credit: ACS)
Norbert Rillieux was born free black American on a New Orleans plantation on March 17, 1806. Norbert studied chemical engineering at L’Ecole Centrale in Paris, where he had greater educational opportunities as a person of color. He proceeded to become an engineering instructor at the university because of his renown intellect and experimental skills. In Paris, Rillieux discovered a safer, cheaper method of sugar refinement that helped reduce the dangerous conditions of sugar refinement—a task often performed by slaves. His invention utilized a vacuum chamber to allow lower sugar refinement temperatures and reduce the intense burns slaves and workers endured. To implement his technology, Rillieux’s returned to Louisiana with his and installed the sugar evaporation system on 15 sugar factories, producing over 90,000 lbs of sugar per day. He is remembered today for his brilliant thermodynamics research and his easing of the labor of slaves.
George Washington Carver
“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” – George Washington Carver (Image credit: Smithsonian Magazine)
George Washington Carver is perhaps best known for inventing over 300 uses for peanuts as am agricultural scientist and inventor. He was also an advocate for techniques to prevent soil depletion, which included rotating crops throughout the seasons instead of planting cotton all year round. He graduated with an agriculture B.S. in 1894, a Master of Science in 1896, and subsequently became the first black faculty member, all at Iowa State University. He then joined the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Institute in 1896, where he remained for 47 years teaching students and developing methods to prevent soil depletion as well as different uses for crops like peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes to popularize crop rotation. He became one of the few American members of the Royal Society of Arts in England in 1916 and has been awarded several honorary doctorates.
“Ball’s discovery was beneficial to alleviating the pain that was sustained by patients…for a Black woman to be able to achieve what she did and make advances in that area during that time is remarkable unto itself.” – James P. Harnish (Image credit: University of Hawaii)
Alice Ball was a chemist who made major contributions to the field of pharmaceutical sciences at a very young age. She earned bachelor’s degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and the science of pharmacy from the University of Washington and went on to become the first woman and first African American to receive a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. Ball was also the first woman and first African American chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii. She studied oil from a chaulmoogra tree and was able to develop the first injectable treatment for leprosy. Ball tragically passed away at the age of 24 in 1916, so she was not able to fully observe the impact of her discovery. Unfortunately, at the time, there were many men in science who claimed the credit for women’s discoveries and this exact situation occurred when Dr. Arthur Dean, from the same university, continued her research and named the method after himself. Six years after Ball’s death, a paper in a medical journal was published providing full credit for the discovery to her and naming the finding the “Ball method”. Since then, she has been posthumously honored with a plaque (2000) and has been awarded the Regents’ Medal of Distinction by the University of Hawaii (2007).
Walter Lincoln Hawkins
“If you fight hard, know who you are, and are proud of who you are, you’ve got a good chance of winning.” – Walter Lincoln Hawkins (Image credit: Plastics Industry Association)
Dr. Walter Lincoln Hawkins was a chemist and chemical engineer from Washington, D.C. He earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an M.S. in chemistry from Howard University, and a Ph.D. in chemistry from McGill University. He was the first Black person to join the Bell Laboratories scientist staff and made a substantial impact on the field of polymer chemistry through the innovation of a safe plastic cable sheath polymer to replace the lead-based material commonly used in telephone cables at the time. Hawkins was also a major contributor towards advocacy efforts for minorities. He was able to support minorities and engineers who wanted to earn Ph.D.’s through the Bell Laboratories Cooperative Research Fellowship Program. Among many honors and achievements, Hawkins became the first Black engineer to be inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 1975 and was honored by President George H.W. Bush with a National Medal of Technology in 1992.
“They just said, ‘If she says it’s right, it’s right’ because the guys didn’t do the work. I did it.” – Katherine Johnson (Image credit: WVU)
An intensely curious student from White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine Johnson graduated in 1937 from West Virginia State college with degrees in mathematics and French. After a brief enrollment as one of three black graduate students at West Virginia University, she took a teaching job at a black public school in Virginia. In 1952, she joined the West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautic’s (NACA), analyzing flight test data and studying turbulence as a “computer” at the Langley laboratory. She’s most well known for calculating the trajectories of John Glenn’s successful 1962 orbital mission upon his request. Her other contributions to space flight include 26 authored or co-authored research reports, her work on the Lunar Module for Project Apollo, and the Space Shuttle and Earth Resources Technology Satellite. In 2015, she was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her story as a human “computer” is told in the novel “Hidden Figures,” which was adapted into a movie of the same name in 2016.
Marie Maynard Daly
“Courage is like – it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue: you get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming.” – Marie Maynard Daly (Image credit: ACS)
Dr. Marie M. Daly was a biochemist from Queens, NY. She experienced financial struggles throughout her studies and due to this, chose to attend college close to home. She earned a B.S. and an M.S. in chemistry and despite racial and gender biases, became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States (granted by Columbia University in 1947). Daly made substantial contributions in the field of biochemistry, and in addition to research, she was committed to providing opportunities for minority students interested in attending medical schools and graduate programs. She established a scholarship for minority students pursuing science majors at Queens College in 1988 in honor of her father, who was unable to pursue a career in science due to the lack of opportunities available to him. In 1999, The National Technical Association recognized her as one of the top 50 women in Science, Engineering, and Technology.
James Andrew Harris
“The greatest people will be those who possess the best capacities, cultivated with the best habits.” – James Andrew Harris (Image credit: CEN)
Harris grew up in both Texas and California, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1953 from Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas. he struggled to find work as a chemist due to racial discrimination, as most potential employers did not accept that a Black man was qualified to work in science. Harris eventually landed a job as a radiochemist at Tracerlab in Richmond, California, in 1955, where he worked for 5 years. His most noteworthy work was at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the 1960s and 1970s. Thanks to Harris’s persistence and scientific acumen, his team discovered two elements: element 104, rutherfordium, and 105, dubnium.
“Do not allow your mind to be imprisoned by majority thinking. Remember that the limits of science are not the limits of imagination.” – Dr. Patricia Bath (Image credit: NIH)
Patricia Bath discovered a cataract laser surgery technique known as laserphaco and founded a new discipline of medicine called community ophthalmology. Born in Harlem, New York in 1942, Bath’s largest supporter in her pursuit of science was her mother, who told to “never settle for less than her best”. Bath graduated with a degree in chemistry from Hunter College in 1964, then obtained her M.D. at Howard University College of Medicine in 1968. Her career in science were largely influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, dedicating herself to empowering people through equal health care the Poor People’s Campaign. In particular, she found people of color in the U.S. were twice as likely to forego eye surgeries and treatments due to the procedures’ financial costs. Bath convinced Harlem Hospital center to provide and later discovered a less-invasive laser-based procedure for cataract removal, increasing access to healthcare for all people.
“Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them. . . ..You’re eagles! Stretch your wings and fly to the sky.” – Ronald McNair (Image credit: UC Berkeley)
Dr. Ronald McNair was born in Lake City, South Carolina in 1950 to a low-income family and grew up during the Civil Rights Movement. He received his B.S. in engineering physics from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1971 and his PhD in physics from MIT in 1976, where he became known for his work in laser physics. In 1978, while a staff physicist at the Hughes Research Lab, he was selected for the NASA astronaut program and flew aboard Challenger in 1984 as the second Black American to fly in space. He was killed in the 1986 Challenger disaster and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. His legacy includes the TRIO Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which offers support for students with low income and underrepresented students pursing doctorate education. He was also an accomplished saxophonist and a noted practitioner of karate.
Mae C. Jemison
“You have the right to be involved. You have something important to contribute, and you have to take the risk to contribute it.” – Mae Jemison (Image credit: NASA)
Jemison is an engineer, doctor, and astronaut from Decatur, AL. As a child, she knew she wanted to study science, yet she was irritated with the lack of women and black scientists—especially on the Apollo Missions. She graduated with a B.S. in chemical engineering in 1977, an M.D. in 1981, and became the first black astronaut in 1992. Jameson faced racial discrimination throughout her studies and demonstrated strength in persisting. She has been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame among other honors, and currently leads the 100 Year Starship Project through DARPA.
As we celebrate these Black scientists, we also have to acknowledge the fact that Black people are underrepresented in science. There is a long history of racial injustice and discrimination that prevents or hinders Black students from pursuing science degrees. These include socioeconomic status, as well as lack of institutional support in higher education. Studies have found that even today, Black STEM students are underrepresented at almost every level and that they face obstacles ranging from lack of financial support, to hostile environments, to microaggressions1. In the 2019 job market, Black people represent only 9% of the STEM workforce2 even though they make up 14% of the US population3. Black women in particular are least represented in higher education STEM degrees, making up only 2.9% of women in that category4.
Although Black STEM representation has risen over the past few years, it has only done so incrementally and critical gaps in education persist. In order to increase diversity and inclusion in STEM, we have to make conscious efforts to not only identify the root causes of these disparities in representation, but to act with intention and create a more welcoming environment for scientists from all backgrounds.
Authors’ note: We must also acknowledge that some contributions to science made by Black people were done so without their consent. For instance, the ubiquitous HeLa cell line used commonly in biological research was derived from Henrietta Lacks, who had no knowledge that when she went for cancer treatment in the 1940s, her tissue would be used to create the first immortal cell line5. In the case of the Tuskegee syphilis study, 600 black men were recruited for a study on syphilis treatments but were told that they were being treated for “bad blood” rather than syphilis. When penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis, its use was withheld from the participants. Most of these men were poor and illiterate sharecroppers and informed consent was not obtained. These stories serve as historical examples for how racism and racial inequalities can create systems that allow disadvantaged Black people to be used and exploited.
Additional information on these scientists
- “Norbert Rillieux.” American Chemical Society, https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/norbertrillieux.html.
- Magazine, Smithsonian. “In Search of George Washington Carver’s True Legacy.” com, Smithsonian Institution, 21 Feb. 2019, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/search-george-washington-carvers-true-legacy-180971538/.
- “The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver.” Tuskegee University, https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/george-washington-carver.
- Worthen, Meredith. “Alice Ball.” com, A&E Networks Television, 8 Jan. 2021, https://www.biography.com/scientist/alice-ball.
- “W. Hawkins.” Lemelson, https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/w-hawkins.
- Loff, Sarah. “Katherine Johnson Biography.” NASA, NASA, 22 Nov. 2016, https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.
- “State Launches Career of Pioneering NASA Mathematician Katherine Johnson.” West Virginia State University – Katherine Johnson, https://www.wvstateu.edu/about/history-and-traditions/katherine-johnson.aspx.
- “Marie M. Daly.” com, A&E Networks Television, 12 Jan. 2021, https://www.biography.com/scientist/marie-m-daly.
- acs.org, https://cen.acs.org/people/profiles/Six-black-chemists-should-know/97/web/2019/02.
- “Changing the Face of Medicine | Patricia E. Bath.” S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 3 June 2015, https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_26.html.
- “Take the next Step to Becoming a Wildcat.” About Ronald E. McNair | Central Washington University, https://www.cwu.edu/mcnair-scholars/about-ronald-e-mcnair?textonly=1.
- “Mae C. Jemison.” Pioneers of Flight, https://pioneersofflight.si.edu/content/mae-c-jemison.
- The Community of Scholars. “1,000 Inspiring Black Scientists in America.” Cell Mentor, http://crosstalk.cell.com/blog/1000-inspiring-black-scientists-in-america.
- “African-American Science Bloggers, Writers, and Tweeters.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 12 June 2012, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/urban-scientist/african-american-science-bloggers-writers-and-tweeters/.
- Ladyzhets, Betsy. “These 6 Graphs Show That Black Scientists Are Underrepresented at Every Level.” Science News, 16 Dec. 2020, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/black-scientists-disparities-representation-stem-science.
- Woolston, Chris. “Minority Representation in US Science Workforce Sees Few Gains.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 23 Apr. 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01089-6.
- Tamir, Christine, et al. “Facts about the U.S. Black Population.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 15 Dec. 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/fact-sheet/facts-about-the-us-black-population/.
- “Women of Color in STEM: The Past, Present, and Future.” Maryville Online, 10 May 2021, https://online.maryville.edu/blog/women-of-color-in-stem/.
- “Henrietta Lacks: Science Must Right a Historical Wrong.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 1 Sept. 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02494-z.
- “About the USPHS Syphilis Study.” Tuskegee University, https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/centers-of-excellence/bioethics-center/about-the-usphs-syphilis-study.
- “Carnegie Science Center Celebrates Black History Month.” Carnegie Mellon University, https://carnegiesciencecenter.org/programs/black-history-month/. (Cover photo)