A Tribute to African Americans Who Impacted STEM

By Savanna Ledford

February has been designated as Black History Month since 1976 and is a time to honor the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans who have shaped the United States.1,2 In the words of former President Barack Obama, Black History Month is about “… the lived, shared experience of all African Americans, high and low, famous and obscure, and how those experiences have shaped and challenged and ultimately strengthened America”.3 February was chosen to honor Black history because it is the birth month of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; Lincoln had a prominent role in the emancipation of slaves and Douglass was a former slave who led the abolitionist movement.2

The great contributions made by African Americans are often overlooked. For example, the first prototype for open heart surgery was created by Dr. Daniel Williams in 1893 and the inventor of the first patented gas mask was Garrett Morgan in 1914.4 When we reflect on the education we have received about the history of STEM, not once did their names and the ones below get raised in the classroom. This needs to change because, “by neglecting the tremendous accomplishments of African Americans we deprive students of color the pride of historical role models and all of us with inspiring examples of creative innovation” (Latham, 2018).5 So, in honor of Black History Month, this article aims to spread awareness of some individuals who are considered as pioneers of not just science, but STEM.  

Pioneers of Science: George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was an agricultural chemist who was born enslaved in Missouri in January 1864 (Figure 1).6 In 1865 slavery was abolished and the Carver family were freed.

Figure 1: George Washington Carver (Science History Institute, 2020).

Carver earned a master’s degree in agricultural science and developed an interest in the use of chemistry and related methods to help impoverished farmers in southeastern Alabama.6 His work included soil studies to identify which crops grow best in a region, and for southeastern Alabama, those were peanuts and sweet potatoes. Additionally, he educated farmers on fertilization and crop rotation and invented new products such as flour, sugar, vinegar, some cosmetics, paint, and ink from the crops he helped grow.6 To spread his knowledge beyond rural Alabama, George Carver started traveling to schools, participating in outreach programs, and was a faculty member in the at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.6 For his work, he received the 1923 Spingarn Medal and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.6

Pioneer of Technology: Bessie Griffin

Bessie Griffin (Figure 2), born in 1914 in Hickory, Virginia, invented a feeding device for World War II amputee veterans while she was working a physical therapist.7,8

Figure 2: Bessie Griffin (Changemakers, 2005).

The feeding device was composed of a tube connected to a machine that delivered bites of food to the recipiant.8 The individual using the device will bite down on the tube, allowing food to be delivered into the mouthpiece.8 Later, she created and patented a similar device, but rather than a machine, it was a neck brace that had a built-in support for a dish (Figure 3).7 Her inventions didn’t stop there; she also created the disposable emesis basin for hospitals.7 This invention was not of interest to those in the United States so, she sold the rights of her invention to a company in Belgium.7

Figure 3: Food Device (Kelly, 2022).

Outside of her inventions, Griffin also coined the term “medical graphology” (handwriting analysis based on human ailments) from her publication that examined the parallels between health and handwriting characteristics.7 This publication led to her next career role as a forensic scientist for police departments in New Jersey and Virginia.7 As a forensic scientist, she helped detect forged documents and verified authenticity of documents regarding slavery, the Civil War, and the Native American treaties in the United States.9 

Pioneer of Engineering: Nola Hylton

Nola Hylton, born in 1957 in New York, is a radiologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco (Figure 4).10,11

Figure 4: Nola Hylton (UCSF, 2022).

She is known for her work in developing a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique that locates tumors and characterizes surrounding tissue for the detection, diagnosis, and staging of breast cancer.10,11 Today, she is focused on the development and evaluation of MRI techniques within the breast cancer space, specifically, the assessment of treatment response.11 She was among the first group of Susan G. Komen scholars for the Cure’s Scientific Advisory Council and is the co-leader of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) office of Women’s Health International Working Group.11 During her time as a co-leader, Nola identified and addressed barriers in the clinical dissemination of breast MRIs.11

Pioneer of Mathematics: Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia (Figure 5).12

Figure 5: Katherine Johnson (Shetterly, 2020).

Her career started at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA), later renamed as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Langley Laboratory in 1953 working on the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division.12 One of the well-known missions that Johnson was involved in was the Friendship 7 mission, which was America’s first human spaceflight that was accomplished by astronaut, John Glenn. Johnson worked on trajectory analysis for the mission and later published her work with Ted Skopinski that included equations describing the spacecraft landing position.12 In 1962, NASA had the objectives for Glenn to orbit around Earth, observe human health and behavior in space, and then have John Glenn and the spacecraft recovered safely.12 This mission required the construction of communication networks by linking tracking stations around the world to computers located in Washington, Florida, and Bermuda.12 These computers had the orbital equations programmed which told NASA the trajectory of the spacecraft. However, Glenn was hesitant to only rely on the computer output due to the system being prone to blackouts. As a result, he asked Johnson to confirm the output of the computer by hand, leading to a successful mission.12 At the age of 97, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.12

Concluding Remarks

The individuals highlighted in this article are not the only ones who contributed to the advancement of STEM. I encourage you to take the time to educate yourselves on African Americans who helped shaped the STEM field to where it is today. Even though February is Black History Month, we should be educating ourselves on Black history every day. If you are not sure where to begin, click here for a list of books to get you started.

TL:DR

  • February is Black History Month. The work of George Carver, Bessie Griffin, Nola Hylton, and Katherine Johnson advanced the STEM field with their unique inventions, STEM applications, and supported the growth of future students. 

References

  1. History (2022). Black History Month. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-history-month.
  2. Franklin, J (2022). Here’s the story behind Black History Month-and why it’s celebrated in February. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2022/02/01/1075623826/why-is-february-black-history-month.
  3. The White House (2016). Remarks by the President at Black History Month Reception. Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/18/remarks-president-black-history-month-reception.
  4. NewScientist (2016). African Americans and STEM: A Rich Past, A Bleak Present, and A Bright Future. Retrieved from https://jobs.newscientist.com/article/african-americans-and-stem-a-rich-past-a-bleak-present-and-a-bright-future-/.
  5. Latham, S (2018). A History of Innovation: Pioneering Achievements of Black Engineers. Retrieved from https://www.linkengineering.org/Explore/LE_Blog/52515.aspx.
  6. Science History Institute (2020). George Washington Carver. Retrieved from https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/george-washington-carver.
  7. Kelly, K (2022). Bessie Blount Griffin, Physical Therapist and Inventor. Retrieved from https://americacomesalive.com/bessie-blount-griffin-physical-therapist-and-inventor/.
  8. MIT (2022). Bessie Blount. Retrieved from https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/bessie-blount.
  9. Changemakers (2005). Bessie Blount Griffin. Retrieved from https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/169.
  10. People (2020). Nola Hylton. Retrieved from https://peoplepill.com/people/nola-hylton.
  11. UCSF (2022). Nola Hylton, PhD. Retrieved from https://profiles.ucsf.edu/nola.hylton.
  12. Shetterly, M (2020). Katherine Johnson Biography. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.

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