Written by Stephanie House and Gaoyuan Liu
As we think about how to expand diversity in the sciences during Black History Month, it is important to remember that African Americans have always made important contributions to the field, as did Africans before them. While a few figures, like George Washington Carver (1864-1943), are often included in history books, the contributions of many are largely unknown. One example has recently been brought to public attention in the movie Hidden Figures, which tells the story of how three African-American women at NASA, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, helped launch John Glenn into orbit in 1962.
Indeed, despite multiple barriers, black scientists have made significant contributions from the beginning of our country’s history, one of the earliest known and most remarkable being Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), a largely self-educated mathematician and astronomer. Banneker’s many accomplishments include constructing the first functioning clock made in the US, accurately predicting the solar eclipse of 1789, contradicting his established contemporary mathematicians and astronomers, and surveying territory for the construction of Washington DC. He published his own almanacs, critical to agriculturalists, and was the first to integrate crop rotation and irrigation techniques. He also corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, urging him to support racial justice and end slavery.
Another early figure is Daniel Hale Williams (1856–1931), a surgeon who made noted contributions to surgical procedure and performed the second documented successful open heart surgery in 1893. He also established Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Chicago, this first with an interracial staff (which remains open today), and co-founded the National Medical Association in 1895. The chemist Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975), though originally not allowed to attend high school, went on to earn a PhD, made pioneering breakthroughs in chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs. Of particular note, he was the first to synthesize cortisone and hydrocortisone, used to treat arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, and physostigmine, used to treat glaucoma. He eventually started his own company in 1953, becoming one of the first black millionaires. He remained an advocate to improve conditions for African Americans on several fronts, including helping to found the Legal Defense and Education Fund in Chicago. After his death, synthesis of physostigmine was recognized by the American Chemical Society as “one the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry” in 1999. He was also elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.
Despite facing both gendered and racial discrimination, black women left their mark as well. One of the earliest know is Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895), who in 1864 became the first African-American woman to earn an MD degree in the United States, and the only to attend the New England Medical College. She authored A Book of Medical Discourses in 1883, which was one of the first publications about medicine written by an African American. She was known for caring for those in need, regardless of their ability to pay, including her work with freed slaves through the Freedman’s Bureau in the postwar south. Another example is the chemist, Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916), who was the first who woman to graduate from the College of Hawaii. In her short life she developed a treatment for leprosy by isolating the ethyl esters from the oil to make an injectable form to treat the disease; this remained the most effective option until the 1940s. Roger Arliner Young (1899 -1964) was the first black woman to receive a PhD in zoology in 1940 from the University of Pennsylvania. Though she had poor grades as an undergraduate, she persisted due to a mentor who saw her potential. The picture dramatically changed in graduate school, where she was inducted into the Sigma Xi honor society and published her first article in Science in 1924, while still a master’s student. She went on to work at Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts and also taught at a number of universities. Her research included radiation effects on sea urchin eggs, and the hydration and dehydration of living cells.
The past and present come together with the written work of Dr. Sibrina Nichelle Collins, a contemporary chemist and current Executive Director of the Marburger STEM Center at Lawrence Technological University (LTU) in Southfield, Michigan. Recognizing the efforts of unsung African-American pioneers such as Alice Augusta Ball, Collins highlights unsung heroes in a series of articles published to the online publication Undark, each of which centers its focus around the rippling historical effects of these great yet all-too-seldom mentioned African-American scientists. You can find Collins’s essay on Alice Augusta Ball on Undark, as well as her two other publications about James Ellis LuValle, Olympic Legend and Chemist, and Dr. Evelyn Boyd Granville, NASA mathematician and the subject of recent Best-Picture nominated film, Hidden Figures.
In the introduction for her essay on Alice Augusta Ball, Collins writes:
These scientists are not important because of their race, but that is a reason they’ve historically been overlooked. This editorial series will serve as a platform to increase recognition and explore the remarkable intellectual contributions of these ‘unsung’ African-American scientists.”
Collins speaks cogently on the significant contributions of African-American scientists before her, but has also fashioned a wonderfully successful scientific career of her own. Starting July last year, she joined LTU in her current capacity as Executive Director at the Marburger Center. Thanks to a $20 million gift from an alumni, LTU has begun making way for new projects, initiatives with industry partners, and increased mentoring for students—initiatives all led by Dr. Collins. Prior to working at LTU, Collins worked as a director of education at the Charles. H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, focusing on science education. She earned her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University but has spent time at Louisiana State University, Claflin University, and the College of Wooster, specializing in organometallic chemistry.
Photos, in order from top to bottom: Portraits of Benjamin Banneker; Roger Arliner Young; Sibrina Collins
Daniel Hale Williams
Percy Lavon Julian
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
Alice Augusta Ball
Roger Arliner Young