Gladys West

This article was originally published on Feb. 8, 2022.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person to shape the world we live in. With a spark of imagination and a little bit of courage, amazing things can be achieved. Unfortunately, some of those achievements can be overshadowed and innovations taken for granted; history is full of amazing scientists who were often overlooked because of their race and gender.

Influential Black Scientists Who Changed History

In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting 8 amazing Black scientists and the ways that they changed history.

1. George Washington Carver (1864-1943)

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Born into slavery in 1864, George Washington Carver is best known for his innovations in farming, soil restoration and peanuts. After the Civil War ended, Carver and his older brother James learned to read and write. Though his brother soon turned to farming, Carver focused on his studies and interest in botany — even learning how to mix herbal remedies and nurse plants back to health, earning him the nickname “the plant doctor.”

Later on, Carver enrolled in the botany program at Iowa State University, becoming the first African American to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in science. Impressed with Carver’s skills in botany and crop science, Booker T. Washington offered him a prestigious position at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He accepted the position in 1896 and worked there until his death in 1943.

Carver’s research led to the idea of crop rotation, which helps the restore nitrogen in soil after harvesting any singular crop, such as cotton. He suggested planting soybeans, peanuts and sweet potatoes to add nutrients to the soil and create an abundance of food for landowners. Carver is also credited for the idea of permaculture, in which carbon is pulled from the atmosphere to improve crop growth. This is a key factor in combating climate change and is used in some farms today.

At the end of the day, besides being one of the most influential Black scientists who changed history, Carver was always a man for the people. He donated his life savings — about $60,000 (nearly $1 million today) to a museum and foundation in his name. His gravestone, which you can visit today at Tuskegee, reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

2. Charles R. Drew (1904- 1950)

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One of the most prominent surgeons of the early-20th century — as well as African American scientists in history — Charles R. Drew is remembered as the creator of the blood bank, the first director of the American Red Cross and the first Black man to earn a doctorate from Columbia University. 

While growing up in Washington, D.C., Drew earned an athletic scholarship to play football and run track at Amherst College. After earning his degree in 1926, he became a biology professor and football coach at Morgan College in Maryland (now Morgan State University) to earn money for pursuing his medical degree. Two years later, Drew attended McGill University in Canada — eventually graduating top of his class and receiving awards for his work with transfusion medicine.  

In 1938, Drew went to New York City to train at Presbyterian Hospital, where he developed a method for long-term storage of blood plasma. This came in handy: With World War II raging, soldiers were in need of blood. So Drew spearheaded the Blood for Britain campaign, which helped collect 5,000 liters of blood and saved many lives. He then became the first director of the American Red Cross but left the position after two years, outraged at the racial segregation of the blood they collected. 

In 1950, at the age of 45, he died in a car accident on his way to Alabama for a medical conference. Many rumors stemmed from his death, including that he was refused a blood transfusion from a white doctor. However, all of these claims have been proven false. 

3. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

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Katherine Johnson, a prominent mathematician, is one of the first Black women to work as a NASA scientist. Johnson’s love for math and numbers started at a young age; by the age of 10 she was already enrolled in high school.

After graduating with high honors from West Virginia State College in 1937, Johnson began teaching. But in 1939, when West Virginia schools integrated, Johnson and two men were invited to join a graduate program and became the first Black students at West Virginia University.

Although Johnson left the university to start a family with her then-husband, James Goble, she began working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1953, an organization that would later become NASA. She worked as a computer – long before the Microsoft or Apple machines came around in the West Area Computing unit. The 2016 film Hidden Figures shares a glimpse of her life (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson) and career, alongside colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

During the Space Race, Johnson was brought on to NASA’s Space Task Group. There she became the first woman to co-author a paper on engineering and the first woman to sit in on mission debriefings. She helped calculate the path for both Freedom 7, the first U.S. human spaceflight, and Friendship 7, allowing Alan B. Shepard Jr. and John Glenn to safely visit space. She worked on other missions, too, including Apollo 11 and Apollo 13. 

Johnson retired from NASA in 1986. In 2015, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. NASA also named a computational research facility, a satellite and a spacecraft that supplied the International Space Station in Johnson’s honor. She died in 2020 at the age of 101, still an inspiration to many in the STEM field — and leaving a lasting legacy as one of the most influential Black scientists (and female) who changed history.

4. Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)

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Ernest Everett Just is best known for his work in biology and marine animal fertilization. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1883 and raised by a single mother, Just contracted a case of typhoid fever at the age of 4 that impaired his cognitive abilities. As a result, he was forced to relearn how to read and write. Though he struggled greatly, Just ultimately graduated in 1907 as the only magna cum laude of his class at Dartmouth University.

Just then turned to teaching at Howard University, starting in the English department but soon becoming a biology instructor and eventually the head of its new zoology department. From there, Just became the first Black man to work at the Marine Biological Laboratory while pursuing his postgraduate degree through the University of Chicago. There he worked with Frank Lillie, the laboratory’s director, on the fertilization of marine vertebrates; the work earned Just the first NAACP Spingarn Medal.

Realizing he was unlikely to find work at a traditionally white university, Just expanded his horizons to Europe — particularly Berlin. When World War II broke out, he was imprisoned by German Nazis for a short time but eventually released with the help of his father-in-law. Though he returned to the U.S. safely, he died a year later from pancreatic cancer. But his impact as one of the most remarkable Black scientists of all time is well alive today.

5. Lonnie Johnson (1949-)

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NASA engineer and inventor Lonnie Johnson is the father of some of our favorite toys, plus dozens of other patents. All of you ’90s kids who grew up playing with Nerf guns and Super Soakers have Johnson to thank.

His own father, a military truck driver, taught Johnson about electrical currents and how to fix household appliances at a young age. This sparked his curiosity in building and creating things, and his talent for mechanics and experimentation quickly landed him the nickname “The Professor” among friends. 

Johnson spent most of his teen years tinkering with mechanics and small engines, even building a robot called Linex for a fair at the University of Alabama in 1968. Despite Linex coming in first place, the University of Alabama overlooked Johnson as a possible future student. Instead, he ended up going to Tuskegee University (where an inspiration of his, George Washington Carver, taught). He attended on a scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering followed by a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. 

After college, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force, where he helped develop a stealth bomber program. Later he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping the Galileo mission get to Jupiter and the Cassini mission reach Saturn.

In 1989 he designed the Super Soaker squirt gun, then known as the Power Drencher in. Within two years, the toy generated $200 million in sales. To this day, Johnson has several patents under his belt and is always working on new inventions. He’s currently a member of the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Atlanta and a member of the Georgia Alliance for Children, undeniably, holding a special place as one of the most influential African American scientists.

6. Gladys West (1930- )

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Gladys West is a prominent mathematician known best for her development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). West knew from a young age that she wanted to continue her education. But at the time, the only opportunities for young Black women in her community were to work as sharecroppers or in a tobacco plant. Knowing she wanted more, she studied hard and, after graduating as valedictorian, was granted a full scholarship to Virginia State College. By 1955 West had earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics.

West searched for a teaching position but was continually turned down by racist and sexist institutions. However, in 1956, the U.S. Naval Proving Ground (a weapons lab) hired West as a mathematician. She became one of four Black employees, including her future husband and fellow mathematician, Ira V. West.

During her time there, West solved math problems by hand before programming a computer to do it for her. She worked on projects that related to Pluto and Neptune, acted as project manager for a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance satellite and helped create a GPS service.

Like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, West is considered a “hidden figure” and one of the most regarded Black scientists of all time. Her contributions to science were often overlooked because of her race and gender. Among her other achievements with the Navy, West also earned a master’s and doctoral degree in public administration. She’s been awarded numerous awards including the Prince Phillip Medal, HBCU Digest’s Female Alumna of the Year and an induction into the U.S. Air Force Hall of Fame. West retired in Virginia. You can read more about her in her memoir, It Began With A Dream.

7. Percy Julian (1899-1975)

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Chemist Percy Julian is best known for his work on cortisone, steroids and birth control. An Alabama native, Julian couldn’t find a high school in the South that would accept him, due to discrimination. So at 17, he applied to DePauw University in Indiana and took high school courses alongside college credits, graduating at the top of his class.

From DePauw, Julian traveled to several universities — he received his master’s degree at Harvard and his doctorate at the University of Vienna in Austria. Julian then returned to DePauw, where his research led to a drug treatment for glaucoma. Despite his success, however, the university never granted him the opportunity to become a professor because of the color of his skin.

Read More: 5 Interesting Facts About Chemist Percy Julian

After leaving the academic world, Julian worked as a laboratory director for the Glidden Company. While there, he was credited with creating Aer-O-Foam, a soy-based foam to extinguish oil and gas fires. Used by the Navy during World War II, it also opened the door to other soy-based inventions: From soybeans, Julian helped treat rheumatoid arthritis by synthesizing cortisone.

In 1954, Julian established Julian Laboratories in Illinois. After selling the company just seven years later, he became one of the first Black millionaires. From there, he created a nonprofit, the Julian Research Institute, where he worked until his death from cancer in 1975. Julian was a trailblazer and one of the most distinguished Black scientists in history. Yet, his contributions are not widely known. You can learn more about Julian in the Nova documentary, Forgotten Genius.

8. Daniel Hale Williams (1858- 1931)

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Daniel Hale Williams, a prominent surgeon, is best known for performing one of the first successful open-heart surgeries and for opening the first interracial hospital. Prior to his medical career, he worked as both a shoemaker’s apprentice and a barber. Through these, Williams found that his true passion was for helping people; he continued his education at Chicago Medical College as an apprentice under the highly accomplished surgeon Henry Palmer

After graduating, Williams opened Provident Hospital in 1891 — the first interracial hospital in the U.S. The hospital not only treated Black patients, but also served as a training institute for Black physicians and nurses. It was here that Williams performed open-heart surgery on a patient who’d been stabbed in the chest. The patient went on to live another two decades.

In 1894, Williams headed to Washington, D.C., after being appointed chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital. The hospital, which provided care for formerly enslaved people, needed repair after years of neglect. Williams helped rebuild and added additional services, such as an ambulance and training for Black medical students. He spent the rest of his career working for various hospitals in Chicago until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1926, dying five years later at his home in Idlewild, Michigan. Still, his legacy as one of the most influential African American scientists who changed history is undeniable.

Read More: The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time

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