Black History Month: Pioneers of Science

The trailblazing scientists we’re honoring for Black History Month are regarded as true revolutionaries. They reached achievements like traveling to space, synthesizing drugs from plants, and becoming an astrophysics icon, but they also did all of this while breaking the barriers to follow their dreams and helping pave the way for other African Americans in science.

Here are just a few of the countless African American pioneers of science:

Guion “Guy” Bluford

Guion Bluford
Photo Courtesy: NASA

Hometown: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Education: Bluford graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. He also holds a master’s and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and a master’s in business administration from the University of Houston.

Known for: Being the first African American to travel to space

Other achievements: Bluford was a decorated Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War. In 1983, he served as specialist for a mission on the Challenger space shuttle, his groundbreaking first voyage into space. In total, Bluford has logged over 688 hours in space.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Photo Courtesy: NASA

Hometown: New York City, NY

Education: Neil deGrasse Tyson holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University, a master’s in astronomy from the University of Texas, and a master’s and Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University.

Known for: Awakening public interest in astronomy as an immensely popular TV science personality through shows like NOVA ScienceNow and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Other achievements: Since 1996, Tyson has served as director of the Hayden Planetarium. While working there, he made the controversial decision of classifying Pluto as a dwarf planet, and in 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided to follow his lead. Tyson has authored multiple science books for the public, and now hosts his own podcast, StarTalk Radio, where “science meets comedy and pop culture.” He holds 19 honorary doctorates and is the recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen.

Mae C. Jemison

mae
 Photo Courtesy: NASA

Hometown: Born in Decatur, Alabama, but considers Chicago, Illinois her hometown

Education: Jemison holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University, and a doctorate in medicine from Cornell University.

Known for: Being the first African American woman to travel to space

Other achievements: Before working at NASA, Jemison worked as a Area Peace Corps Medical Officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and a general practice doctor in Los Angeles. She was admitted to the NASA astronaut training program in 1987, and became the first African American woman in space as a mission specialist aboard the Endeavor in 1992. Jemison conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on herself and her crew while in space.  She has also spoken about the need for supporting women and other minorities in STEM.

Percy Julian

Percy_Lavon_Julian
Photo Courtesy: DePauw University Archives

Hometown: Montgomery, Alabama

Education: Despite having no high school to attend because of his race, Julian eventually graduated first in his class from DePauw University.  He earned a master’s in chemistry from Harvard and a Ph.D. from the University of Vienna in Austria.

Known for: His work in the chemical synthesis of medical drugs from plants. He discovered he could synthesize the hormones progesterone and testosterone from soybean oil, and also developed a soy protein that could put out oil and gas fires, later adopted by the military. His work and research helped make medical products cheaper and more plentiful.

Other achievements: The grandson of slaves, Julian faced racial barriers at every stage of his career. Despite this, he went on to hold more than 100 chemical patents and write multiple research papers. Julian was also the first African American chemist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences, elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and his synthesis of physostigmine was named “one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry” by the American Chemical Society.

Mary Winston-Jackson

Mary Jackson at Work NASA Langley
Photo Courtesy: NASA

Hometown: Hampton, Virginia

Education: Winston-Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physical science from Hampton Institute.

Known for: Being NASA’s first African American female engineer, and for her expertise in wind tunnels and data analytics for aircraft flight experiments

Other achievements:  Winston-Jackson was one of a handful of African American women to work at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), now know as NASA. In 1978, she became a human resources administrator, working to help other women and minorities advance their careers at NASA. Her story is chronicled along with others in the 2016 film, Hidden Figures.

Any other pioneers in science come to mind? Let us know in the comments!


Join the Discussion