February 12, 2021
Dear PTC Community,
Continuing our Black History Month recognition of African Americans who have been influential in their field, I ask that you take some time to learn about and celebrate the accomplishments of the following individuals who have significantly impacted science through their research and inventions.
These are just a few of the great black Americans who have changed our world with their work. Additionally, I hope you’ll take the time to review the following link featuring a list of items that you use, and probably take for granted, every day that you can thank a black inventor for creating: Black Inventors List
George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943)
Scientist and inventor, known as “The Peanut Man.” Carver grew up with an interest in plants and traveled the country to receive an education. He was the first African American to earn a Bachelor’s of Science degree and then earned a Master of Agriculture degree going on to build an agricultural school at the Tuskegee Institute. He developed the concept of crop rotation and using peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes to restore depleted soil which resulted in an abundance of these crops. He cultivated alternative uses for the crops and was particularly successful with peanuts creating more than 300 products from the plant including flour, paper, and skin care items.
Percy Julian (1899 – 1975)
Research chemist and inventor. The grandson of former slaves, Julian lived in an Alabama community that didn’t offer high school to black students so he applied to college in Indiana and took night classes to catch up on his high school level classes. He graduated first in his college class, going on to earn a master’s from Harvard and a PhD at the University of Vienna in Austria. After struggling to find work due to his race, he eventually became a lab director at Glidden and invented Aero-Foam, a plant-based product used for putting out fires in World War II. He played a major role in developing medicines from plants like cortisone, steroids, and birth control pills, and established his own laboratory which he eventually sold becoming one of the first black millionaires.
Katherine Johnson (1918 – 2020)
Research mathematician. Johnson was only 18 years old when she graduated from college with degrees in math and French and became a teacher. She began working in aeronautics as a “computer” (checking technical calculations) in her early 30s. With the formation of NASA in 1958 she became part of a team determining how to get a person into space and back and plotted Alan Shepard’s 1961 space flight as well as John Glenn’s orbit of Earth. At age 97, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and at age 99 NASA named a new research building after her. The book and movie, “Hidden Figures,” shares Johnson’s story along with other African American female computers.
George Edward Alcorn (1940 – )
Physicist and inventor. A gifted scholar and athlete, Alcorn completed a master’s degree in nuclear physics in nine months while working at the North American Rockwell’s Space Division. He went on to earn a doctorate in atomic and molecular physics working much of his career in aerospace, including for NASA where he was Inventor of the Year in 1984. He also spent over 25 years as a college professor and was an original mentor in a University of Maryland program supporting minority students seeking careers in math or science. Additionally, he founded a Saturday math and science honors program for inner-city middle school students. He holds eight patents for numerous inventions and is best known for inventing the imaging X-ray spectrometer for determining chemical and elemental properties (life?) in space.
Patricia Bath (1942 – )
Ophthalmologist and inventor. Bath was raised in Harlem, NY, and graduated from high school in two years during which she contributed to a scientific paper presented by the head of a cancer research workshop from the National Science Foundation. She claimed many “firsts” including first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology, first female faculty member in UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute, first woman to chair a residency training program, and first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent. She invented and patented the Laserphaco Probe for treating cataracts and restored eyesight for people who had been blind for more than 30 years.
Shirley Jackson (1946 – )
Theoretical physicist and inventor. Jackson was the first African American woman to earn a PhD from MIT, and used her background in physics to advance telecommunications research while working for Bell Laboratories. Her work led to the invention of products like touch-tone phones, the portable fax, fiber optic cables, and caller ID. She also taught physics at Rutgers University. From 2009-14 she served as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for Obama, and has held numerous other government positions. She currently leads Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as President and has been awarded 55 honorary doctoral degrees.
Mark Dean (1957 – )
Computer Scientist and engineer. Growing up, Dean was a standout student and athlete, graduating at the top of his class at the University of Tennessee in engineering then going on to work at IBM. He is credited with developing the ISA system that allows peripheral devises to be plugged directly into computers as well as the development of the color PC monitor. He is responsible for three of IBM’s original nine patents as well as approximately 20 other patents. He is the first African American to be named an IBM fellow, earned the Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award, and has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His work has changed how we interact with computers and the internet.
Kizzmekia Corbett (1986 – )
Scientist/viral immunologist. Always a stellar student, Corbett participated in Project SEED in high school, a program for gifted minority students, that allowed her to study advanced science and led to a full college scholarship and a summer internship with the National Institute of Health. She studied virus infections during her doctorate program and earned a PhD in microbiology and immunology. She has worked on a universal influenza vaccine that is preparing to go to clinical trial and is currently the scientific lead on Dr. Fauci’s Coronovirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis Team at the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (the Moderna vaccine). She is an advocate of STEM education. Dr. Fauci hopes that her leadership will help diminish the high level of skepticism among African Americans regarding the vaccine.
I hope that you are inspired by these brief biographies and are seeking more information about these individuals and others. PTC students need to believe that regardless of race, religion, age, national origin, gender, disability, or other differentiating factor, they can achieve greatness and change the world.
“Never limit yourself because of others’ limited imagination; never limit others because of your own limited imagination.”
– Mae Carol Jemison, physician, scientist, and first African American female astronaut
African American Inventors
Ten Black Scientists that Science Teachers Should Know About
31 Highly Influential African American Scientists