Six Black scientists who changed the course of history

February 28, 2023

This Black History Month, we wanted to highlight just a few of the many Black researchers who’ve made significant contributions in STEM. From the doctor who established chemotherapy as a well-established cancer treatment to the “Black Leonardo Da Vinci” and the founder of the Pan-African Green Belt Movement, here are some Black researchers who have changed the course of history.

Wangari Muta Maathai; Image source. Credit: Wangari Maathai. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Born in Kenya in 1940, Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai became the first African female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is renowned for her dedication to conservation of the environment and human rights. Most famously, she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which mobilized African women to plant trees in their local environments as an answer to deforestation. Over 30 million trees have been planted thanks to her efforts.

George Washington Carver; Image source. Credit: Photographer unknown, c. 1910; restored by Adam Cuerden. Tuskegee University Archives/Museum.

George Washington Carver, dubbed “Black Leonardo” by TIME Magazine in 1941, was born into slavery at an unknown date in the 1860s. He was the first Black student (and later the first Black faculty member) at Iowa State, and spent most of his career at Tuskegee Institute where he taught and conducted lab work. An artist, botanist, agronomist, chemist, mycologist and inventor, his many accomplishments include numerous methods to prevent soil depletion, the distribution of agricultural bulletins based on results from the industrial research laboratory he founded, and the discovery and identification of countless fungus species.

Dr. Francis Kofi Ampenyin Allotey was a Ghanaian mathematician and physicist who received his PhD from Princeton University in 1966. He became interested in mathematics and science at an early age, when he read the biographies of famous scientists in his father’s bookstore. Most notably, he was known for the “Allotey Formalism,” a technique used to determine what happens when an atom is bombarded by external particles. He was awarded the Prince Philip Gold Medal Award in 1973 for his work in the area of soft X-ray spectroscopy.

Katherine Johnson; Image source. Credit: NASA, 1966.

Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician and aerospace technologist who played an instrumental role in NASA’s crewed spaceflights. She was one of the first Black students — and the only woman — selected to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools after the Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada Supreme Court ruling in 1938. In 2015, at age 97, Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

George R. Carruthers (right) & William Conway (left); Image source. Credit: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, 1960s.

Dr. George R. Carruthers was an inventor, physicist, engineer and space scientist who spent 38 years of his life at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, where he focused on far ultraviolet astronomy. His invention, the ultraviolet camera/spectrograph, was used by NASA for the Apollo 16 launch in 1972, and in 1986, another one of Dr. Carruthers’ instruments captured an ultraviolet image of Halley’s Comet

Jane Cooke Wright;
Image source. Credit: National Library of Medicine.

Dr. Jane C. Wright was a pioneering oncology researcher and professor of surgery who made significant contributions to the field of chemotherapy. Born in 1919, she followed in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to join the medical profession, overcoming gender and racial bias to rise to the top of her field. Among other impressive accomplishments, she discovered methotrexate, the basis for modern chemotherapy, and developed a chemotherapy protocol that increased skin cancer patient lifespans by up to ten years.

The legacy of these Black researchers is undeniable. Despite the roadblocks they faced (many of them put in place by the institutions they strove to join) their tenacity and dedication to their professions won through. STEM owes a debt of gratitude to these Black scientists who were determined to change the history books and persevere, all for the love of science.

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