Black History Month: Honoring Science Pioneers




Following up on our look at mathematicians for Black History Month, let's highlight some African Americans who have made their mark in science. 

Dr. Mae Jemison (b. 1956) is an American physician and astronaut. She became the first African American woman to travel to space in 1992 when she went into orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. In addition to being the first real astronaut to appear on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dr. Jemison is an avid dancer and holds 9 honorary doctorates. She is a professor-at-large at Cornell University, and currently serves as a principal of the 100 Year Starship organization, a joint endeavor by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to create a business plan that fosters research for interstellar travel.

Dr. Jane Cooke Wright (1919-2013) was born in Manhattan to a public school teacher and one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School. A graduate of New York Medical College, Dr. Wright spent much of her medical career advancing chemotherapy research – a largely experimental topic at the time. In 1955 she became an associate professor of surgical research at New York University and director of cancer chemotherapy research at New York University Medical Center. In 1964, President Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to his Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. In 1967 she was named professor of surgery, head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and associate dean at her alma mater, New York Medical College.  At the time, Dr. Wright was the highest ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. In 1971, she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society.


Dr. Charles Drew

Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950) completed his MD from McGill University in 1933 as well as a master of surgery degree. He also completed his Doctor of Medical Science from Columbia University, the first African American to do so. Having graduated in 1940, just before the United States entered World War II, Dr. Drew was recruited to help establish and run a pilot program for blood storage and preservation. Called the Blood for Britain project, the program gave U.S. blood to Great Britain for use by British soldiers. Leveraging his work, the American Red Cross subsequently established their network of blood banks.

Dr. Roger Arliner Young (1889-1964) was a zoologist, biologist, and marine biologist born in Clifton Forge, Virginia. After attending Howard University, Young completed her master’s work at the University of Chicago, where she became the first African American woman to research and professionally publish in her field. After several years working with her mentor from Howard, Ernest Everett Just, Young returned to Chicago to start her Ph.D. in zoology but failed her qualifying exams. After several years of struggle and a falling out with Just, Young went to the University of Pennsylvania where she completed her PhD in 1940. She was the first African American woman to receive a doctoral degree in zoology.

Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins Jr. (1923-2011) entered the University of Chicago at 13, making him the youngest student ever at the University. Wilkins completed his PhD in mathematics by 19 and later received both bachelor's and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from New York University. In his career as a nuclear scientist, mechanical engineer, and mathematician, Dr. Wilkins worked on the Manhattan Project, researched the extraction of fissionable nuclear materials for use in the atomic bomb, discovered numerous phenomena in physics, and developed nuclear reactors for generating electrical power.



About Author

Clare FitzGerald

Curriculum Development Specialist

Clare FitzGerald is a research scientist with Curriculum Pathways. As part of a cross-disciplinary research team seeking to improve youth outcomes, Clare facilitates community collaborations, conducts applied research, and generates digital content. Clare joined Curriculum Pathways in 2014, and in 2016 completed her PhD in Public Administration from North Carolina State University. Her research interests include performance measurement and management as well as innovation and technology adoption and use.

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