February marks Black History Month, and while it’s the perfect time to pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, they are far from the only historical figures who have made a difference to this community.
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And if we go to the field of science, it is common to see tributes to Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, but African-Americans who also made revolutionary discoveries are often left behind. That’s why we’re highlighting some of the most influential and inspiring African-Americans in science here.
Born into slavery, George Washington Carver became a noted botanist, inventor, and teacher. He invented more than 300 uses for peanuts and developed a variety of techniques designed to address the damage caused by years of soil depletion on cotton plantations.
Carver was made a Fellow of the British Royal Society of Arts, a rare honor for an American, and advised noted leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and President Teddy Roosevelt on agriculture and nutrition. Today, Carver is featured as the “Father of Chemurgy” in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hall of Heroes.
Physicist and educator Edward Bouchet was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from any American university. Additionally, he was one of the first twenty Americans of any race to earn a doctorate in physics.
Unfortunately, due to rampant discrimination, he had trouble getting a job as a teacher after graduation. However, he did so at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, where he taught physics and chemistry for 26 years. Today, the American Physical Society’s Edward A. Bouchet Award recognizes “distinguished minority physicists” for making significant contributions to the field.
Marie Maynard Daly was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. She then served as a professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and, later, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University. She also established the Queens College Scholarship, which awards funds to minorities studying chemistry or physics.
Daly played a vital role in the investigation of several key health issues, including creatine absorption, protein synthesis, and the interaction of cholesterol and hypertension. He offered a new understanding of how food and diet can affect the health of the heart and circulatory system.
Easley was a computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist who worked at NASA as a “human computer,” performing complex mathematical calculations. Her workplace began as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory. This later became the NASA Lewis Research Center and is now known as the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field.
Easley then evolved with technology, becoming an accomplished computer programmer, helping develop and implement code for numerous projects in an impressive career that spanned more than three decades. Her work was instrumental in the development of renewable energy projects and the Centaur project, which paved the way for a variety of space shuttle and satellite launches.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s name may be widely known, but many people only know him because of his humorous appearances in movies like Zoolander 2. His sense of humor is remarkable, but that’s just the beginning.
Tyson has also made his mark as director of the Hayden Planetarium, advisor to President George W. Bush, and host of several television specials. He has a way of breaking down complex scientific concepts in a way that ordinary people can understand. For this reason, he has received a variety of awards over the years, including the Hubbard Medal from the National Geographic Society and a Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.
The first African-American neurosurgeon in the United States, Alexa Canady was also the first African-American woman certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. She specialized in pediatric neurosurgery and became director of neurosurgery at Children’s Hospital. Under her direction, the department was soon seen as one of the best in the country.
Born and raised in Virginia, Gladys West put her mathematical and programming background to good use to invent an accurate model of the Earth that was used as the basis for the creation of the Global Positioning System (GPS). She was the second black woman to be employed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Dahlgren Division and was inducted into the United States Air Force Hall of Fame, one of the highest honors bestowed by the Air Force.
Percy Julian was a research chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of drugs from plants, such as cortisone, steroids, and birth control pills. He was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the American Chemical Society for his work.
American NASA engineer, physician, and astronaut Mae Carol Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel to space when she entered orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor on September 12, 1992.