Appreciating Black scientists throughout history

Black scientists have contributed a lot to the world we know today. Today, I’ll be talking about five of these remarkable figures – only a tiny fraction of influential Black scientists.

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By: Ashley Bergeron
Staff-Writer

Black scientists have contributed a lot to the world we know today. Today, I’ll be talking about five of these remarkable figures – only a tiny fraction of influential Black scientists. 

Mae C. Jemison 

Since she was little, Mae C. Jemison has been fascinated with everything science. At age 16, Jemison attended Stanford with a scholarship, where she double majored in chemical engineering and African and African-American studies. She earned a doctorate in medicine from Cornell University in 1981.

After Sally Ride became the first American woman to go to space, Jemison applied to NASA’s astronaut program to achieve her dream of becoming an astronaut. After training for a year, Jemison became the first African American woman astronaut in 1988. On Sept. 12, 1992, Jemison, alongside six other astronauts, boarded the space shuttle Endeavor for 126 orbits around Earth. 

Jemison left NASA in March 1993. She founded the Jemison Group, whose goal is to encourage the love of science in students and bring advanced technology to schools worldwide. As she is a strong advocate for science education, she also created an international science camp for students.

Gladys West

Born to sharecroppers in 1930 – farmers who shared some of their harvests with their landowners – Gladys West knew she didn’t want to pick crops or work in a factory for the rest of her life. After graduating at the top of her class, West received a scholarship to Virginia State College, where she majored in math, a male-dominated subject. 

After teaching math for a couple of years, West started work at the U.S. Naval Proving Ground, a weapons laboratory. She worked on projects like the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator, a calculator that determined the movements of Pluto in relation to Neptune.

In 1978, West became the director for Seasat, a satellite that provided oceanographic data like wave height. Out of this project came GEOSAT. West and her team created a satellite programmed to generate computer models of Earth’s surface, which made it possible to determine the actual shape of the Earth. This model helps GPS devices make accurate calculations of anywhere on Earth.

Percy Julian

A grandson of enslaved people and during a period when African Americans faced prejudice at every corner, Percy Julian was able to attend DePauw University as a sub-freshman (He had to take some high school courses as well college courses). He graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry and taught at Fisk University for two years. 

Julian was offered the Austin Fellowship at Harvard University, where he got a master’s degree in organic chemistry. Julian began his doctoral study of plant chemistry at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Alongside his colleague, Josef Pikl, Julian returned to DePauw University. Together, they accomplished the first complete synthesis of physostigmine. This alkaloid treats glaucoma by easing the constriction of outflow channels from the eye’s aqueous humor to relieve high pressure. If left untreated, glaucoma damages the retina and eventually causes blindness.

After hearing that steroids were obtainable from soybeans, Julian was hired by the Glidden Company in Chicago after requesting soybean oil samples. There, he accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce stigmasterol, which is synthesized into progesterone, a hormone that prevents pregnant women from having miscarriages. 

Julian also found a way to synthesize cortisone and hydrocortisone from the synthesis of Substance S from the adrenal complex. Cortisone has remarkable effects on rheumatoid arthritis, as well as a variety of over-the-counter uses, and the industry uses the same route that Julian pioneered.

Benjamin Banneker

Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born and raised by an ex-slave father and a free mother. Since his parents were free, Banneker was able to escape from the hands of slavery. His maternal mother taught him how to read, and he self-educated about other subjects and skills. For the family farm, Banneker constructed an irrigation system. He also built a wooden clock that was known to tell the time accurately and ran for more than 50 years.

Banneker’s most significant impact was his series of almanacs, which he published for six years. These featured astronomical calculations, opinion pieces, literature and medical and tidal information. 

He also had an impact on the early civil rights movement. In 1791, Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson stating that he had the liberty to send this to Jefferson due to the color of his skin and called out the hypocrisy of the patriots for fighting for their freedom against the British but still enslaving people like Banneker. Alongside this letter, Banneker sent Jefferson a manuscript of his almanac for 1792. Jefferson wrote back and sent the manuscript to the secretary of the French Academy of Sciences.

Charles Henry Turner

Charles Henry Turner was an American behavioral scientist in the early 20th century. At the University of Cincinnati, Turner earned a B.S. and an M.S. in biology. In 1907, Turner went to the University of Chicago to earn a Ph.D. in zoology. He had multiple teaching careers throughout his life. He taught at Sumner High school in St. Louis, Missouri, until retirement in 1922.

Turner designed apparatuses such as mazes for ants and cockroaches and performed experiments on insect navigation, which established that insects change their behavior based on experience. One of the first behavioral scientists to do so, Turner emphasized using controls and variables in experiments. The phenomenon where ants returned to their home in a circular motion was named Turner Circling, as Turner was the one who discovered this.

As Turner maintained a lifelong commitment to civil rights, he argued that only education can change the behavior of racists. From his behavioral study on animals, he suggested two types of racism: one that is a response to the unfamiliar and another that is learned from principles such as imitation.

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