Celebrating Black Scientists throughout history

famous black scientists
Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, a current inspirational black scientist in the field of Astrophysics. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre (via Flickr)

By Mia Becker-Hansen | Head of Science and Technology

Scientists, engineers, and inventors find the solutions to the world’s problems and help us evolve as a species. From numbers released by the Royal Society in 2018-19, 1.8% of science, technology, engineering, and maths academic staff aged 34 and below are black. In physics and chemistry, the proportion of black researchers stands at zero percent, rounded down. Further to this, no black scientist has ever won a Nobel Prize. In honour of black history month, this article is in honour of the achievements of some of the black scientists throughout history and today.

We begin with George Washington Carver (1864-1943), who was an American agricultural scientist and inventor, considered the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century. Born into slavery a year before it was outlawed, Carver left home at a young age to pursue education and eventually earned a master’s degree in agricultural science. His best-known invention was that of crop rotation, which was an alternative to single-crop farming. It involved planting alternative crops to cotton to prevent soil depletion. He taught people how to live off of these other crops, as well as many methods to restore soil in order to increase their quality of life. He also had an excess of discoveries about the uses of peanuts.

Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) was a biologist, neurologist, and psychologist. He made ground-breaking discoveries in the field of animal behaviour that went completely against what was thought at the time, suggesting that animals were capable of complex cognition. Among his discoveries, he was able to prove that insects have the capacity to hear and that they can learn by trial and error. Sadly, his pioneering research was forgotten due to racial issues, resulting in many white scientists ‘re-discovering’ his findings years later. He was one of the first African-Americans to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago, and the first black scientist to be published in Science, a prestigious science journal. Due to racial barriers, he couldn’t find work as a researcher or academic despite his achievements, ending up teaching at a high school.

Despite her short life, Alice Ball (1892-1916) developed the first effective treatment for leprosy, a bacterial infection that has affected humans for thousands of years. While studying for her masters degree in Hawaii she studied the oil from a chaulmoogra tree, which was used as a topical treatment for leprosy with mixed results. Ball figured out how to isolate the fatty acid components of the oil and make it injectable so it would dissolve in the bloodstream. This became the first effective method to alleviate leprosy symptoms, allowing current leprosy patients to be able to avoid spreading the disease. They previously had to be living in isolation. A year later, the president of the University of Hawaii claimed her discovery for himself and published the findings without giving her credit. It wasn’t until 1922 when her colleagues published her findings that she was given the recognition she deserved.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020) was an American mathematician whose calculations calculated and analysed the flight paths of many spacecraft missions for over 30 years at NASA. This included the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights, including the first American in space, the first American in orbit, and flight paths for landings on the Moon. Her calculations were essential to the beginning of the Space Shuttle Program. Her achievements were recognised in the film Hidden Figures.

Mae C. Jemison (1956-) is an engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut. After receiving two undergraduate degrees and a medical degree, Jemison served two years as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa, before being selected to join the NASA astronaut training program. She served as mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, orbiting the Earth for nearly eight days, making her the first black woman to travel to space. Jemison left NASA so found her own technology research company, as well as an educational foundation to encourage minority students to pursue sciences.

Mia Becker-Hansen Science and Technology

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