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Celebrating Black History Month 2024 At the Science and Engineering Library: Home

Highlighting Black Scientists, Engineers, and Inventors who made History

In 1876 Edward Alexander Bouchet made history by becoming the first African American PhD physicist, and the sixth person of any race to receive a PhD in physics from an American university. Bouchet went on to educate and inspire others as a science teacher at a school for black students.

After completing a Ph.D. at Columbia—and becoming the first African American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry—Daly taught and conducted research. At Columbia, her research focused on how the body's chemicals help digest food. Fascinated by the human body's complicated inner workings, Daly is best known for research geared toward practical applications for health and nutrition, she investigated the effects of cholesterol, sugars, and other nutrients on the heart. Her research disclosed the relationship between high cholesterol and clogged arteries and increased our understanding of how foods and diet affect the health of the heart and the circulatory system.

Gladys Mae West is an American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modeling of the shape of the Earth, and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS). West was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame in 2018. (



“... in science credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs.” Francis Galton

In 1706, an enslaved West African man was purchased for the prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather by his congregation. Mather gave him the name Onesimus, after an enslaved man in the Bible whose name meant “useful.”

His contribution to modern medicine cannot be overstated, and he helped eradicate one of the world’s deadliest diseases. Yet, because he came to the United States as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, little of Onesimus exists in the historical record. There are no known depictions of him — and historians aren’t even sure of his true birth and death dates.



Mark E. Dean was chief engineer on the team that designed the original IBM PC in the early 1980s. He helped develop technologies, including the color PC monitor and the first gigahertz chip. With a colleague, he developed a system that allowed devices such as printers and monitors to be plugged directly into computers.

Tyson is the fifth head of the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium in New York City and the first occupant of its Frederick P. Rose Directorship. He is also a research associate of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. In 2001, Tyson was appointed by President Bush to serve on a twelve-member commission that studied the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. The final report was published in 2002 and contained recommendations (for Congress and for the major agencies of the government) that would promote a thriving future of transportation, space exploration, and national security.

In an era when NASA is led by an African American man (Administrator Charles Bolden) and a woman (Deputy Administrator Dava Newman), and when recent NASA Center Directors come from a variety of backgrounds, it's easy to overlook the people who paved the way for the agency's current robust and diverse workforce and leadership. Those who speak of NASA's pioneers rarely mention the name Dorothy Vaughan, but as the head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949 until 1958, Vaughan was both a respected mathematician and NASA's first African-American manager. (

Being handpicked to be one of three black students to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools is something that many people would consider one of their life’s most notable moments, but it’s just one of several breakthroughs that have marked Katherine Johnson’s long and remarkable life. Born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1918, her intense curiosity and brilliance with numbers vaulted her ahead several grades in school. By 13, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At 18, she enrolled in the college itself, where she made quick work of the school’s math curriculum and found a mentor in math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African American to earn a PhD in mathematics. She graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.  (

Mary W. Jackson grew up in Hampton, Virginia. After graduating with highest honors from high school, she then continued her education at Hampton Institute, earning her Bachelor of Science Degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science. Following graduation, Mary taught in Maryland prior to joining NASA. Mary retired from the NASA Langley Research Center in 1985 as an Aeronautical Engineer after 34 years. (

As a doctor, engineer, and NASA astronaut, Mae Jemison has always reached for the stars. In 1992, Jemison became the first African American woman to travel in space. She has also written several books and appeared on many television programs including an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In addition to her many awards, Jemison has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame and the International Space Hall of Fame. (

Vivien Thomas

The life of Vivien Thomas is an inspiring story of an African-American pioneer who overcame the barriers imposed by a segregated society. With no formal medical training, he developed techniques and tools that would lead to today's modern heart surgery. In operating rooms all over the world, great surgeons who received their training from Vivien Thomas are performing life-saving surgical procedures.

Jane Cooke Wright


Dr. Jane Cooke Wright was truly a trailblazer in multiple aspects of her life. She was born in 1919 in Manhattan to Corinne Cooke, a school teacher, and Louis Wright, one of the first African American graduates from Harvard Medical School. Similar to her father, Dr. Jane Cooke Wright attended medical school at New York Medical College and did residencies at various hospitals – including Harlem Hospital where she was chief resident.

 While attending medical school and becoming a chief resident as an African American woman was already incredibly groundbreaking, Dr. Jane Wright’s work drastically advanced the way cancer is treated. In 1949, she joined her father at the Harlem Hospital Cancer Research Center, which he found, where she did some of her most groundbreaking research.

Henrietta Lacks


Henrietta Lacks

Although not a scientist herself, one can argue that Henrietta Lacks’s contributions to science and medicine truly have made her “immortal”:

“Born on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, Henrietta Lacks could not have known the effect she would have on innovation in medicine.  At the age of 31, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, which at the time was one of only a few hospitals to treat black patients in the area.  She began treatment and underwent a biopsy, which ultimately revealed a remarkable discovery.

“While other cancer cells died very quickly, Lacks' cells reacted quite differently.  Dr. George Gey, who had spent years collecting and culturing cancer cells from cervical cancer patients at Johns Hopkins, soon found that rather than die, Lacks' cells instead doubled within 24 hours.

“ Sadly, Lacks passed away on October 4, 1951, just eight months after her original diagnosis.  Though just 31 years old at the time, her cells and her impact on medicine lived on.

 “Lacks' cells continued to grow, thus allowing medical researchers to research, test, and experiment on live human cells in a controlled environment.  This line of cells has proven to be monumental in the field of medical research.  Now called the HeLa immortal cell line (the name HeLa coming from the first two letters of her first and last name), Lacks' cells have aided in the research and development of treatments for countless diseases.  These treatments include the polio vaccine, numerous viruses, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances on the human body, the study of the human genome, and so many others.

“Lacks' cells continue to aid in the advancements of medical research.  Now affectionately called the "Mother of Medicine," Lacks has paved the way for innovation and the modern medicine we all benefit from today.”

“Celebrating Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks.” The University of St. Thomas, The University of St. Thomas, 9 Feb. 2021,

Lonnie Johnson is a former Air Force and NASA engineer who invented the #1 top selling water toy of all time. The Super Soaker.  Two of Johnson’s companies, Excellatron Solid State and Johnson Battery Technologies, Inc. (JBT) are developing revolutionary energy technology.

JBT is introducing a new generation of rechargeable battery technology which has the potential to revolutionize the battery industry. Providing a source of energy many times that which exists today in a substantially reduced size, this technology will solve many of the problems related to technology mobility in the future.

In 1956, Hawkins, along with partner Victor Lanza, invented a polymer that had all the desired characteristics. This polymer was essentially a plastic that contains a chemical additive composed of carbon and antioxidants that prevents the material from deteriorating, even in severely hot or cold weather conditions. The new material, now known as “plastic cable sheath,” went into production in the 1960s and became widely used as an inexpensive, durable, and safe coating for telecommunications wire. It is still used today to protect fiber optic cable.

African American chemist Percy Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs such as cortisone, steroids and birth control pills. Julian discovered how to extract sterols from soybean oil and synthesize the hormones progesterone and testosterone. He was also lauded for his synthesis of cortisone, which became used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.


Dr. Alexa Canady was the first African American woman in the United States to become a neurosurgeon. Alexa Canady earned a B.S. degree in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1971, and graduated from the medical school there in 1975. "The summer after my junior year," she explains, "I worked in Dr. Bloom's lab in genetics and attended a genetic counseling clinic. I fell in love with medicine." In her work as a neurosurgeon, she saw young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, and other brain injuries or diseases. Throughout her twenty-year career in pediatric neurosurgery, Dr. Canady has helped thousands of patients, most of them age ten or younger.

Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was “the first Black woman millionaire in America” and made her fortune thanks to her homemade line of hair care products for Black women. Born Sarah Breedlove to parents who had been enslaved, she was inspired to create her hair products after an experience with hair loss, which led to the creation of the “Walker system” of hair care.



Actor Nichelle Nichols, who died July 30, 2022, didn't just break new ground on "Star Trek" by playing one of the first leading recurring Black female characters on U.S. television. A decade after the show ended, she did the same for NASA, appearing in a promotional film aimed at recruiting women and people of color to apply to be astronauts, as she recounted in a 2012 visit to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The next astronaut class, appointed in 1978, included Guy Bluford, the first Black American in space, and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. (

Lewis Howard Latimer

Inventor and engineer Lewis Howard Latimer was born to parents who had fled slavery. Latimer learned the art of mechanical drawing while working at a patent firm. Over the course of his career as a draftsman, Latimer worked closely with Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, in addition to designing his own inventions.

He taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing the work of draftsmen at the firm. Recognizing Latimer's talent and promise, the firm partners promoted him from office boy to draftsman. In addition to assisting others, Latimer designed a number of his own inventions, including an improved railroad car bathroom and an early air conditioning unit.

Latimer was directly involved with the inventions of the telephone. Working with Bell, Latimer helped draft the patent for Bell's design of the telephone. He was also involved in the field of incandescent lighting, a particularly competitive field, working for Hiram Maxim and Edison.

References and Recommended Further Reading

Alexander, Stephon. The Jazz of Physics : The Secret Link between Music and the Structure of the Universe. Basic Books, a 

     member of Perseus Books Group, 2016. Editors. “Lewis Howard Latimer Biography.”, A&E Networks Television, 2021,

Blakemore, Erin. “How an Enslaved African Man in Boston Helped Save Generations ... - History.” History Stories: How an Enslaved African Man in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox, A&E Television Networks, 8 Apr. 2021,

Brockell, Gillian. “The African Roots of Inoculation in America: Saving Lives for Three Centuries.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Dec. 2020,

Brown TH. The African Connection: Cotton Mather and the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721-1722. JAMA. 1988;260(15):2247–2249. doi:10.1001/jama.1988.03410150095037

“Celebrating Black History Month: Henrietta Lacks.” The University of St. Thomas, The University of St. Thomas, 9 Feb. 2021,

Chandler, Jacie. “Black History Month: Recognizing African-American Scientists and Inventors.” Ecsc, Ecsc, 25 Feb. 2022,

  “Edward Bouchet.” Physics Today, 2017,

ENGINEER AT PLAY: LONNIE JOHNSON; Rocket Science, Served Up Soggy: ENGINEER AT PLAY: LONNIE JOHNSON. ProQuest, Jul 31, 2001,

Evans, Harold. “They Made America.” Internet Archive, Little, Brown, 1 Jan. 1970,

  Gasman, Marybeth, and Laura W. Perna. “Promoting Attainment of African American Women in the STEM Fields: Lessons from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Diversity in Higher Education, vol. 10, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011, pp. 73–88,

Gill, Monica. The 100 Most Influential Medical Pioneers of All Time, edited by Shalini Saxena, Rosen Publishing Group, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Herschthal, Eric. Black Americans have always understood science as a tool in their freedom struggle. ProQuest, May 18, 2021,

Hersey, Mark D. My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. University of Georgia Press, 2011.

Howell, Elizabeth. “NASA's Real 'Hidden Figures'.”, Space, 24 Feb. 2020,,Katherine%20Johnson%20and%20Dorothy%20Vaughan.

“Jane Wright.” Historic Black Legacies in STEM, Africans in STEM, 2020,

Jones, Abeni. “His Perseverance and Innovation Transformed Telecommunications.” PushBlack, 2020.

Kirkpatrick, Karen. "Lonnie Johnson." Georgia Trend, vol. 38, no. 5, 2023, pp. 98. ProQuest,

Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words, Second Edition. University of Missouri Press, 2017.

Latimer, Lewis Howard et al. Incandescent Electric Lighting a Practical Description of the Edison System. D. Van Nostrand, 1890.

“Learn about the Stories of Lewis Latimer.” Lewis Latimer:  Electrical Pioneer, Lewis Latimer House Museum, 2023,

“The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, 2024,

Mickens, Ronald E. Edward Bouchet: The First African-American Doctorate. World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd, 2002,

“Neil DeGrasse Tyson.”, Hearst Magazine Media, Inc,

 Odom, Brian C., and Stephen P. Waring, editors. NASA and the Long Civil Rights Movement. University Press of Florida, 2022.

Peiss, Kathy. “Shades of Difference.” Hope in a Jar, University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc, 2011, pp. 203–37,

“Percy Julian.” Historic Black Legacies in STEM, Africans in STEM, 2020,

Sanford, Ezelle, III. “The Unappreciated Legacy of African- American Inventors.” Magazine, National Geographic, 3 May 2021,

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, 2010.

Southwick, Albert B. "Slave brought inoculation idea." Telegram & Gazette, May 14, 2009. ProQuest,

“Ten Black Scientists That Science Teachers Should Know About.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2 Jan. 2023,

Thrasher, Jake. “Celebrating Black History Month - Jane Cooke Wright.” Celebrating Black History Month - Jane Cooke Wright | Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, 24 Feb. 2021,