February is Black History Month, a time to highlight the achievements of Black Americans and to recognize that Black history is American history. Initially established as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson, the idea was to ensure that Black Americans knew their history and that the value of their contributions to society was not lost to the active whitewashing of history post Reconstruction. Woodson claimed, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”¹ Today it is just as important to guarantee that Black history is protected. Opposition to Black history endeavors like the 1619 Project shows that, while progress has been made, efforts to bias American history still exist in our country. Here at the SIUE STEM Center, we have made an effort to highlight the work that people of color and other people who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, but despite being kept out of STEM, they have made amazing contributions. We highlight several Black scientists in our STEM Like Me Stories series. The following is a compilation of the Black scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians in STEM stories we have posted. Click the links to read more about these amazing individuals and to find more resources to explore their invaluable contributions to STEM and to American history.
Elijah McCoy (1844-1929) was born a free man in Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred McCoy who escaped enslavement in Kentucky, USA by way of the Underground Railroad. His parents sent Elijah to Scotland when he was 15 for an apprenticeship. Seven years later, after the Civil War, he returned to Michigan as a master mechanic and engineer. Unable to get a job as an engineer because he was black, he gained employment as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad. As an oiler he became familiar with the inefficiency of lubricating locomotives. McCoy developed a steam-powered, automatic lubricating device that allowed trains to travel longer distances faster and without stopping. Other automatic lubrication devices had been developed but his invention gained significant popularity and imitations arose. This led to the possibly legendary attribution of the phrase “the real McCoy” to Elijah’s inventions. Engineers wary of inferior products are said to have asked for “the real McCoy” to be installed on their engines. Almost 50 years after the first patent, the first McCoy stamped lubricators were manufactured by the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920. By the end of his life he had 57 patents to his name.
George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was born into slavery and overcame many life challenges to pursue a career in science. Despite his many efforts, he was denied a higher education because he was black. This led him to homestead a claim in Kansas, where he cultivated his interest in agriculture. Eventually, he was accepted into Simpson College in Iowa, where he studied art and piano, but was encouraged to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College. After graduating from Iowa State, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington to work at the Tuskegee Institute where he became passionate about improving the quality of life for poor farmers. He developed techniques to improve soil quality and encouraged poor farmers to grow food crops instead of cotton. By growing foods like peanuts and sweet potatoes, these farmers could feed themselves. Carver created bulletins for farmers, including one with 105 recipes for using peanuts. Carver also researched new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and more. With his innovative agricultural research, Carver became known as a scholar, expert in the field of agriculture, environmentalist, and one of the most prominent scientists of the early 20th century.
Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923) was born in Cincinnati, OH to Thomas Turner, church custodian, and Addie Campbell, nurse. In a turbulent post-Reconstruction America, Cincinnati provided a safe community for black families to live, work, and learn. He then attended the University of Cincinnati and received a B.S. in Biology in 1891. Turner continued his education at the University of Cincinnati earning a M.S. in 1892. That same year Turner became the first African American to publish an article in the journal Science. Turner became among the first African Americans to earn his Ph. D in Zoology at the University of Chicago. Due to limited opportunities for black scholars in higher education, Dr. Turner eventually ended up as a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Mo. Still, he published around 71 papers in his life (at a higher rate than his university-based contemporaries), three of which were published in the journal Science. The research he wrote was primarily concerned with insect behavior, but included subjects such as education, natural history, and civil rights. Among his achievements, Dr. Turner was the first to successfully demonstrate that honey bees can see colors and patterns, can learn, and create memories. His work turned the understanding of insects as stimulus-response, instinctual robots into organisms that learn and can adjust their behavior to new situations. Dr. Charles Henry Turner died in February of 1923 in Chicago. He is interred at Lincoln Cemetery and the epitaph on his grave stone simply and appropriately reads “Scientist.”
Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) was an African-American biologist who studied marine biology, cytology, and parthenogenesis. Just advocated that we should study the whole cell under normal conditions, rather than breaking apart the cell in a laboratory. He spent the majority of his career at Howard University, but sought out positions at other school’s so he could focus more on his research. He had a difficult time finding these positions, so he often went to Europe to conduct research, where he was better accepted. In 1940, Just was working in France and did not leave despite the government’s request. After Germany invaded France, Just was held as a prisoner-of-war. After he was rescued, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died shortly after.
Raised in a well-established family in Washington D.C. offered Dr. (Martha) Euphemia Lofton Haynes (1890-1980) many benefits not common for African Americans in the early 20th century. A look into her life of achievements shows that not only did she take advantage of these rare opportunities, particularly in her education, but she also strived to make benefits available to those less fortunate than she. Dr. Haynes graduated as valedictorian of her class in 1907 from the segregated M Street High School, which was one of the first black high schools in the US. While working as an elementary school teacher earned a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Smith College in 1914. She then earned her Master’s in education in 1930 from the University of Chicago. And in 1943, at the age of 53, Dr. Haynes became the first African American woman to earn a PhD in Mathematics (Catholic University of America). Primarily an educator, in a career spanning 47 years in the D.C. public school system, Dr. Haynes taught in all levels of schooling, from first grade teacher to Professor of Mathematics. She retired in 1959. Haynes was equally prolific in her work as a public servant. Dr. Euphemia Lofton Haynes died in 1980 at 89 years old and established a trust of $700,000 for the Catholic University of America’s education department. The university, in turn, created the Euphemia Haynes Chair in the Department of Education. She continues to be honored at the university which established the Euphemia Lofton Haynes award in Mathematics in 2018.
Inez Beverly Prosser (1897-1934) was the oldest child of 11. Her father worked as a waiter and her mother was a homemaker. After high school, Prosser pursued a teaching degree at Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College, earning her teaching certificate in 1912. Despite prejudice and laws intended to prevent black Americans from obtaining advanced degrees, Prosser graduated from the University in Colorado with a master’s in education. Prosser then joined the faculty at Tillotson College of Austen, teaching classes in education and psychology. In 1931 she received a fellowship from the General Education Board and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati to pursue a doctoral degree in their College of Education. Prosser became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate in psychology. Her research examined student’s achievement in school based on segregation, looking at social and mental health impacts on student outcomes. Dr. Prosser had a well-established career, publishing her research in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. She also helped financially support her siblings’ education. Dr. Prosser accomplished all this in just 38 years, when she passed from an accident.
Walter Lincoln Hawkins (1911-1992) graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before going on to Howard University for a master’s degree in chemistry. He continued his education at McGill University in Canada where he earned a doctoral degree in chemistry. After obtaining a PhD, he worked at Columbia University through a fellowship from the National Research Council. He then became the first African-American to join the technical staff of Bell Laboratories. While working at Bell Laboratories, Hawkins contributed to the development of a rubber substitute. He also worked on a new type of insulation for telephone cables, which was made of a lighter material that could hold up against temperature fluctuations, last up to 70 years, and was less expensive than lead. Subsequently, telephones were installed in rural areas leading thousands of people to receive affordable telephone service. He later became the assistant director of Bell Laboratories chemical research lab. Hawkins work focused on developing new products and new methods of recycling for various polymers. After his retirement from Bell Laboratories, Hawkins began teaching and becoming an advocate for college students to study science and engineering. In 1992, Hawkins passed away due to heart failure, but earlier that year he received the National Medal of Technology from President George H.W. Bush at the White House.
Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003) was the first Black American woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in Chemistry. She was inspired to pursue chemistry by her father, and attended Queens College, New York University, and Columbia University, to obtain her degrees. After Daly obtained her Ph.D. from Columbia University, she worked as a physical science instructor and conducted research for a few years before becoming a professor of biochemistry and of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She stayed at this school until her retirement in 1986. Dr. Daly studied histones, proteins, the relationship between cholesterol and hypertension, and the uptake of creatine by muscle cells. In memory of her father, she established a scholarship for African American chemistry and physics majors at Queens College.
J. Ernest Wilkins (1923-2011) was born to parents J. Earnest and Lucille B. Wilkins. J. Ernest completed grade school by 10, high school by 13, and went to his parents’ Alma Mater, the University of Chicago, as their youngest freshman at 13 years old. Wilkins earned a bachelors in mathematics in 1940 at 17, a masters at 18, and Ph. D at 19. Dr. Wilkins took a fellowship at the Institute of Advance Study at Princeton University in the fall of 1942. In 1943, his connections at the University of Chicago landed him a job with the Manhattan Project where he worked with Arthur Holly Compton and Enrico Fermi on research of fissionable material. When his team was to be transferred to the top-secret site X, located in the Jim Crow South, Dr. Wilkins refused to work in the second-class conditions that were required of a person of color and was recommended for a new position. He continued his contributions and was instrumental in the development of important nuclear reactor mathematical models. Despite the violent ends of his research, he used much of his remaining career to develop non-military uses for nuclear power. With the war over and his research on the atomic bomb completed, Dr. Wilkins was now only 22 years old and had the rest of his life ahead of him. After a career in private industry, Dr. Wilkins the mathematician, physicist, and mechanical engineer was persuaded to take on academia. Starting in 1970, he served as Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University creating the first Ph. D program in mathematics at an Historically Black College/University. He lived to the ripe old age of 87 years, dying in 2011, and his accomplishments are extraordinarily numerous.
Elliott Skinner (1924-2007) was an anthropologist who started his academic career later in life. Originally from Trinidad, Skinner immigrated to the United States during World War II and enlisted in the army. After the war ended, Skinner was granted American citizenship and enrolled in New York University. He continued his education at Columbia University, where he obtained his master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology. During his schooling, Skinner’s research focused on ethnic interactions in British Guiana; however, his research focus later switched to West Africa. He moved to Burkina Faso to work; learned More, the common language; and later he was nominated as the U.S. Ambassador to the Upper Volta region by President Lyndon Johnson. This was a unique appointment, because Skinner was only the 11th Black American named as a U.S. Ambassador and also the only ambassador who conducted research in a country prior to appointment. Skinner’s other work includes teaching African ethnology at New York University and Columbia University. He was the first Black American to chair an Anthropology Department in the United States, when he was appointed chair at Columbia University. While he taught, Skinner continued to research the people of Upper Volta and published multiple books on the region as well as how Africa has influenced U.S. foreign policy.
Patricia Bath (1942-2019) was born in Harlem to Rubert and Gladys Bath. Dr. Bath excelled in high school, graduating in two years and earning a National Science Foundation scholarship to study cancer growth along the way. Her work with Yeshiva University and Harlem Hospital Center resulted in a mathematical predictive model for cancer growth, a published paper, and an award from Mademoiselle magazine all by the age of 18. Coming from a working-class black family, a college education was not a guarantee, but her mother “scrubbed floors so [Patricia] could go to medical school.” She graduated with honors from Howard University College of Medicine in 1968. Dr. Bath championed the idea of Community Ophthalmology to provide care to those communities that did not have the same advantages as their white counterparts. A true trailblazer the list of Dr. Bath’s many firsts includes: first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology; first female faculty member in the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute’s Department of Ophthalmology and first black woman surgeon on staff; first U.S. woman to serve as chair of an ophthalmology residency training program; first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention; and first woman on the Honorary staff of UCLA Medical Center.
Christine Darden (b. 1942) is a mathematician, data analyst, and aeronautical engineer who worked at NASA for almost 40 years. Darden’s parents encouraged her to pursue opportunities in higher education. In 1958, after graduating as her class valedictorian, she received a scholarship to Hampton University. She was an early advocate in the Civil Rights movement during her time there and graduated with her B.S. and a teaching certificate in 1962. Darden then went to Virginia State College to become a research assistant studying aerosol physics while working toward her master’s degree. Soon thereafter, NASA hired Darden to work in their computer pool as a data analyst writing computer programs at Langley. In 1973, she received a promotion to become an aerospace engineer and in 1983 she earned her Ph.D. in engineering from George Washington University. While at NASA, Darden worked on many projects that dealt with supersonic flight and sonic booms. She revolutionized the aerodynamic designs to create low-boom sonic effects and as the leader of the Sonic Boom Team, she focused on ways to negate the negative effects of sonic booms and tested new designs for aircrafts. Throughout her career, Darden received many awards, including the Dr. A. T. Weathers Technical Achievement Award, the Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Woman, and the Presidential Citizenship Award at Hampton University. She has also received honorary degrees from North Carolina State University and George Washington University. In 2019, she was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.
Lonnie Johnson (b. 1949) was always fascinated by how things worked. He learned the basics about electricity from his dad and learned to repair household items. In 1968, while attending the segregated Williamson High School in Mobile, Johnson was the only black student to participate in a science fair hosted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama where his invention took first prize. Johnson attended the historically black Tuskegee University earning a BS in mechanical engineering and then a MS in nuclear engineering. Johnson worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the NASA Galileo mission to Jupiter and its moons. Johnson worked on the nuclear power source for the unmanned spacecraft and developed an electric fail-safe to protect the computer memory in the event of a power failure. Johnson continued his love of invention. While working on a water-based refrigeration system, Johnson came upon the idea that would eventually become the Super Soaker water blaster and selling over 20 million Super Soakers in the summer of 1991 (and over $1 billion of Super Soaker products since then).
Mae C. Jemison (b. 1956) was the first Black American women in space! She was admitted into the NASA’s astronaut training program on June 4, 1987 and flew into space on September 12, 1992. Before becoming an astronaut, Dr. Jemison obtained a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering and a B.A. in African and Afro-American studies from Stanford and then an M.D. from Cornell Medical College. She then went to work as a general physician and in the Peace Corps before applying to become an astronaut. After her time in space, Jemison founded her own company, the Jemison Group, that works on researching and developing technology to help with daily life. Throughout her life, Dr. Jemison has been awarded nine honorary doctorates and many awards in recognition of her many accomplishments. Dr. Jemison was a guest speaker at SIUE in 2017 and spoke on “Exploring the Frontiers of Science and Human Potential”.
Claudia J. Alexander (1959-2015) was born in Vancouver, Canada and grew up in Santa Clara, California. Dr. Alexander graduated in 1983 from Berkley with a degree in geophysics, which she felt would help her in planetary sciences. She received a master’s from UCLA in 1985 in geophysics and space physics, and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in space plasma physics. She spent the entirety of her career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. There she was a project manager on the Galileo orbiter mission to Jupiter. She, also, participated in the Cassini mission to Saturn and in NASA’s portion of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Among her many endeavors beyond planetary science, she wrote science-fiction short stories and award-winning children’s books on science. She spent much of her time encouraging youth, especially African-American girls, to pursue careers in STEM fields. She established an undergraduate scholarship in her name at the University of Michigan. Dr. Alexander died of breast cancer in 2015, ten years after diagnosis, at the age of 56.
“In the annals of history, the athletes and musicians fade, but the ones who make fundamental improvements in humankind’s way of life, and in their understanding of the Universe, live on in their discoveries.” – Dr. Claudia J. Alexander
Tracy Drain learned from an early age about the amazing world of STEM. Her mother was interested in engineering topics, though she worked at McDonald’s and not a lab. She saw that Tracy was passionate about science, though, and worked hard to help Tracy be the first one in her family to get a college degree. Tracy went to the University of Kentucky and then got a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology where she learned how automated vehicles worked and dealt with hard conditions. This set her up for a career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA and a life flying spaceships! At JPL, Tracy works as a flight systems engineer for projects like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Juno mission to Mars, and the upcoming Psyche mission to the asteroid belt (launching 2022). “When you think about a spacecraft and all the different parts that are necessary to make a spacecraft work,” Tracy says, “there are engineers who focus on making each of those specific systems. But a flight systems engineer is responsible for knowing enough about all those things that we can make sure they come together in a design that will accomplish the overall goals of the mission.”
Danielle N. Lee is a behavioral biologist at SIUE. She obtained her Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Missouri – St. Louis in 2010 and her research focuses on how ecology and evolutionary components contribute to the behavior of animals. One of Lee’s research projects involves exploring the African giant pouch rat’s behaviors. Through this research, Lee hopes to discover if there are differences between the behaviors the giant pouch rat exhibits as well as if there is a genetic component to these differences in behavior. She is currently expanding this research to examine small rodents in the St. Louis Metropolitan area and their behavioral differences. Lee is also passionate about STEM outreach and sharing science to general audiences, especially under-served groups. She typically does this with outdoor programming and social media. From 2011-2016, Lee wrote The Urban Scientist blog; where she wrote about her experiences as a researcher, issues of diversity in STEM, and urban ecology. Lee now primarily uses Twitter to share her science and outreach, and Huffington Post recognized her as a top scientist to follow. Lee has been awarded many times for her efforts to encourage minorities to join STEM; including being named a TED Fellow in 2015, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2017, and a Plenary Speaker at the annual British Ecological Society meeting in 2018. On April 19, 2019, Lee gave a Ted Talk on how hip-hop helps us understand science.
¹C. G. Woodson, “Negro History Week”, Journal of Negro History, vol. 11, no. 2 (April 1926), p. 239
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