34 highly influential African American scientists

These African-American scientists are/were real trailblazers in their fields.
Christopher McFadden

Black scientists have done it all. They've traveled to space, saved countless lives, and fought for the recognition that often came easier to their white colleagues.

Due to discrimination in their day, many contributions of these key players were overlooked at the time. But, not anymore.

These 34 African American scientists have made significant contributions to their respective fields, and greatly deserve their place in history.

1. Patricia Bath made significant contributions to ophthalmology

african american scientists patricia bath
Source: National Library of Medicine/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline:  Ophthalmologist

Date of birth: November 4, 1942

Place of birth: Harlem, New York City

Date of death: May 30, 2019

Born in Harlem in 1942, Bath was encouraged by her working-class parents to pursue her interests in science. She was the first African American to ever complete a residency in ophthalmology at New York University, which she completed in 1973. 

After graduating, she would go on to lead a fruitful career in ophthalmology with the 'cherry on top' being her invention of the Laserphaco Probe - making her the first African American female medical professional to earn a patent for a medical purpose, in 1986.

Bath also became the first female faculty member at the Department of Opthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. She would also establish the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976. 

During her fellowship in Ophthalmology at Columbia University, she published work that demonstrated African Americans were more likely to suffer from blindness, and significantly more likely to develop glaucoma than other patients. 

2. Harold Amos was one of the first African Americans to earn a Medical Doctorate

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Springfield College /Umbrasearch

Scientific discipline: Microbiologist

Date of birth: September 7, 1918

Place of birth: Pennsauken, New Jersey

Date of death: February 26, 2003

Amos was born in Pennsauken, New Jersey in 1918. His parents had close connections with the Quakers, who would often gift books to the Amos family - one of which was the biography of Louis Pasteur. This would spark an interest that would lead to a lifetime fascination with the microscopic world.

Amos completed his undergraduate studies at Springfield College, in Massachusetts, graduating summa cum laude in 1941 with a major in Biology and minor in Chemistry. He was drafted the following year, and after returning home from WWII in 1946, Amos began his graduate studies at Harvard University.

After becoming the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from the Division of Medical Sciences, Harvard Medical School, in 1952, Amos traveled to France under a Fulbright fellowship and worked at the Pasteur Institute. He then returned to the U.S. to begin a lifelong career at Harvard University - where he would study and teach for the next 50 years. Amos became a full professor in 1969 and later he was the first African American to serve as a Chair of a department at Harvard Medical School

Amos was a well-respected educator and often cited teaching as one of his many passions. He would receive many awards throughout his career including the first Charles Drew World Medical Prize from Harvard University, in 1989, an Honoris Causa doctoral degree from Harvard University in 1996, the Centennial Medal of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2000, and the National Academy of Science’ highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal, in 1995.

During his lifetime, Amos was known for his research into bacterial metabolism and animal and bacterial virology, including the use of bacterial RNA to program the synthesis of higher cell proteins, insulin, etc. 

3. Valerie Thomas made significant contributions to America's space program

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Chemist, physicist, and computer scientist

Date of birth: February 8, 1943

Place of birth: Maryland

Thomas is a highly accomplished and talented scientist and inventor. Born in 1943, she graduated from Morgan State University as one of only two women in her class to major in physics and began a lifelong career working at NASA.

At NASA, Thomas helped develop the image-processing systems for LANDSAT (the first satellite to send images from space).  She is best known as the inventor of the Illusion Transmitter, which has proved highly influential for NASA researches. Her invention would be widely adopted by NASA and is still used in the production of televisions and video screens. She retired from NASA in 1995. 

Thomas continued to work for NASA until her retirement in 1995, serving in such positions as Space Physics Analysis Network (SPAN) project manager and most recently associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office. 

Over the course of her career, Thomas also contributed to the development of SPAN (Space Physics Analysis Network) for research related to Halley's comet, ozone hole studies, and a supernova. 

For her contributions to science, she would earn various NASA awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. 

4. George Washington Carver was a big deal in the American peanut industry

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Kevin Saff/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Chemist and botanist

Date of birth: 1864

Place of birth: Diamond, Missouri

Date of death: January 5, 1943

Carver was born into slavery during the American Civil War, lost both his parents as an infant, and was raised by his former owners. At 11, he left the farm to attend a nearby all-Black school. Unhappy with the quality of the education, Carver spent the next decade moving west, putting himself through school and surviving off of the domestic skills he learned from various foster mothers.

After enrolling in Simpson College to study music, a Methodist school that admitted all qualified applicants, Carver was encouraged by one of his professors to apply to the Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study botany. In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, and two years later he earned his Master's.

He spent an extended period of his career at the Tuskegee Institute, where he ran the agricultural department and where would make the majority of his scientific discoveries. 

Washington Carver almost single-handily built the peanut industry in the United States. His research would help the impoverished farmers of southeastern Alabama by educating them in crop rotation and plant fertilization, using a mobile classroom that he designed. Washington Carver also discovered the nutritional benefit of sweet potatoes. 

His discoveries earned him several patents and the 1923 Spingarn Medal. He was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

5. St. Elmo Brady made important contributions to organic chemistry

St Elmo Brady - scientist
Source: Science History

Scientific discipline: Chemist

Date of birth: December 22, 1884

Place of birth: Kentucky, Alabama

Date of death: December 25, 1966

Brady was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1884. He would leave home at the age of 20 to enroll at Fisk University, an all-black college in Tennessee. 

After graduating with a degree in Chemistry he took up a teaching position at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Tuskegee University today). After four years teaching at Tuskegee, Brady was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he became the first African-American to receive a doctorate in Chemistry in the U.S, which he earned in 1916. He also became the first African-American to be admitted into Phi Lambda Upsilon, the chemistry honor society.

Brady would spend a quarter of a century developing the undergraduate program at Fisk University, and founded the first graduate Chemistry program at Howard University. He also helped build the Chemistry department at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Brady’s research resulted in a number of firsts, including new methods for preparing and purifying certain compounds and early contributions to the nascent field of physical organic chemistry. 

He would become a highly regarded educator and would teach at no less than four distinguished historically black colleges. His labor of love for teaching would inspire countless numbers of future chemists.

6. Dr. Betty Harris has helped saved thousands of lives

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Cpnas

Scientific discipline: Chemist

Date of birth: July 29, 1940

Place of birth: Louisiana

Harris was the seventh of twelve children born to her parents in rural Louisiana in the 1940s.

Harris began college at the age of 16, receiving her B.Sc. in chemistry, with a minor in mathematics, from Southern University in 1961. She then earned an M.Sc. in chemistry from Atlanta University in Georgia in 1963. After gaining her M.Sc., Harris worked as an assistant professor of chemistry and mathematics at Mississippi Valley State University, Southern University, and Colorado College as an assistant professor of chemistry and mathematics.

She began her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee before working at IBM and as a visiting staff member at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. In 1973, she completed a Ph.D. in Chemistry 1973 from the University of New Mexico. 

At Los Alamos, Harris worked as a research chemist in various fields, including explosives and nuclear weapons., hazardous waste treatment, and environmental remediation. It was here then she developed her TATB spot test for identifying explosives in the field. Her invention has been widely adopted by military and civil institutions the world over.

Harris retired from LANL in 2002 and joined the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Classification. She is also a member of the American Chemical Society and American Society for the Advancements of Science

7. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has helped revolutionize telecoms

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Theoretical physicist

Date of birth: August 5, 1946

Place of birth: Washington D.C. 

Date of death: January 20, 2017

Jackson was very interested in science and mathematics as a child and would even conduct her own experiments (on honeybees) as a child. She would later use her passion for science to earn a B.Sc., M.Sc., and Ph.D. in Physics. Jackson was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT in any field, and the second to earn a doctorate in Physics in the US.

After receiving her Ph.D., she worked at Fermilab, and also did a fellowship at CERN. In 1976, she accepted a position at Bell Laboratories she began working at AT & T's Bell Laboratories, conducting experiments and research into practical applications of theoretical physics. She would later head the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Clinton Administrations and became the 18th President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the first woman and first African American to hold this position.

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Her main contributions to science revolved around advancements in telecommunications that helped lead to the direct development of technologies such as the portable fax machine, touch-tone phones, and fiber optic cables. Jackson has received many honors and distinctions and served on the board of directors in many organizations.

8. Benjamin Banneker developed an early astronomical almanac

african american inventors benjamin banneker
Source: Bart Heird/Flickr

Scientific discipline: Astronomer

Date of birth: November 9, 1731

Place of birth: Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland 

Date of death:  October 19, 1806

A self-taught astronomer and farmer, and son of former slaves, Banneker is best known for his series of highly successful astronomical almanacs that predicted events such as solar eclipses, sunrises, and sunsets. Many passages also contained predictions of the weather and seasonal changes and medical remedies and advice on planting crops. 

Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to Thomas Jefferson (U.S. Secretary of State) along with other documents explaining his position on racial equality. 

His accomplishments included constructing an irrigation system for the family farm and a wooden clock that was reputed to keep accurate time and ran for more than 50 years. He also assisted in surveying the territory that would become Washington, D.C.

Banneker died at his home on October 25th, 1806. He was 75 years old.

9. Dr. James Edward Maceo West's inventions can be found in many electronic devices today

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Nanoman657/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Physics/Electronics/Acoustics

Date of birth: February 10, 1931

Place of birth: Prince Edward County, Virginia

West is best known for his work in developing the electroacoustic transducer. This compact device is currently found in around 90 percent of modern microphones, most telephones, old tape recorders, camcorders, and other devices such as hearing aids and baby monitors.

West studied physics at Temple University, graduating in 1957, and was hired for a full-time position as an acoustical scientist by Bell, where he developed the transducer.

West was later appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America,  and later joined the National Academy of Engineering in 1998.

For his contributions to STEM, he was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.

10. Dr. Leonidas Berry was revolutionary for some aspects of medical science

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Adundi/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Physician/Medical sciences

Date of birth: July 20, 1902

Place of birth: Woodsdale, North Carolina

Date of death: December 4, 1995

Berry was born in Woodsdale, North Carolina in 1902, the son of a Methodist minister, and grew up in the segregated South. After attending Wilberforce University and the University of Chicago Medical School, he practiced medicine in Chicago for six decades, serving as an attending physician and practicing gastroenterology at Freedman's Hospital in Washington D.C. and at Cook County and Provident Hospitals in Chicago, until his retirement in 1975.

Berry is best known for his work in gastroscopy and endoscopy. He became internationally recognized for co-inventing an instrument for taking gastric biopsies, called the Elder-Berry biopsy gastroscope, which was invented in 1955. Berry was also able to determine that alcoholism damaged the liver rather than the stomach (as was the popular belief at the time). He is also known for creating a new type of clinic-based addiction treatment that became known as the “Berry Plan.” 

He spoke at conferences around the globe and published close to 100 articles in medical journals. He became the first African American in 1946 to join the medical staff of Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital, hired at first as a courtesy staff position. Despite his renown, it took 17 years for Berry to obtain a permanent staff position at the hospital, due to racial discrimination. His experience led him to become heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

He treated injured marchers during the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, and later created a remote area medical service to provide health education and medical care in remote areas.

11. Alice Ball's work helped in the ancient fight against leprosy

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Zil/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Pharmacist and chemist

Date of birth: July 24, 1892

Place of birth:  Seattle, Washington 

Date of death: December 31, 1916

Ball was born as the granddaughter of the renowned daguerreotypist (a now-obsolete form of photography) James Presley Ball. She studied chemistry at the University of Washington, earning a bachelor's degree in pharmaceutical chemistry in 1912, and a second degree in pharmacy two years later. 

Ball moved to Hawaii and in 1915 became the first woman and first African American to graduate with a master's degree (in Chemistry) from the College of Hawaii (now the University of Hawaii). She was also the first African American and first woman chemistry instructor at the University of Hawaii's chemistry department, at the age of just 23.

It was at this time that she began experimenting with chaulmoogra oil to treat patients suffering from Hansen's disease (leprosy). Although the oil had been used topically before this, Ball successfully isolated the oil into fatty acid components which allowed her to create a water-soluble, injectable form. This would prove to be the world's first working treatment for this debilitating disease. 

Tragically, she would die very young, at the age of 24, from complications following a laboratory accident, and would never receive recognition for her achievements in her lifetime.  

12. George Edward Alcorn Jr. made significant contributions to space research

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: NASA/Goddard/Debora McCallum/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Physics

Date of birth: March 22, 1940

Place of birth: Pasadena, California

Alcorn's father was an auto mechanic who was determined that Alcorn and his brother would get an education. Alcorn graduated from Occidental College in Pasadena, California, in 1962, with a B.A. in physics. In 1963 he completed a master's degree in nuclear physics at Howard University

After earning his doctorate in atomic and molecular physics from Howard University in 1967, he spent 12 years in the industry as a senior scientist at Philco-Ford, a senior physicist at Parker-Elmer, an advisory engineer at IBM Corporation. He would later become IBM's Visiting, and then full, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Howard University. 

Alcorn left IBM to join NASA in 1978. While at NASA, he invented an imaging x-ray spectrometer using thermo-migration of aluminum, for which he earned a patent, and a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) Inventor of the Year Award, in 1984. Two years later he devised an improved method of fabrication using laser drilling. 

He was also responsible for developing new technologies required for the space station "Freedom", managed the GSFC Evolution Program, was concerned with ensuring the development of the space station and served as Chief of the Office of Commercial Programs for the GSFC.

13. Jane C. Wright was a pioneer in blood cancer research

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Girona7/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Biologist and physician

Date of birth: November 20, 1919

Place of birth: Manhattan, New York

Date of death: February 19, 2013

Wright's father was one of the first African American graduates of Harvard Medical School, and he set a high standard for his daughters. Wright studied art at Smith College but was persuaded by her father to then study medicine at New York Medical School. After spending time as a residential doctor at Bellevue and Harlem Hospital she decided to dedicate herself to medical research.

Wright would spend her career building on the foundational work of her father in cancer research. During the late 1940s, she and her father began to test chemotherapeutic formulations for treating leukemia and cancer of the lymphatic system. She is credited with developing a technique that tests the effects of drugs on cancer cells, using human tissue as opposed to lab mice.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President's Commission on Heart Disease, Cancer, and Stroke. In 1967, she was named professor of surgery, head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and associate dean at New York Medical College, becoming the highest-ranked African American woman at a nationally recognized medical institution. In 1971, she became the first woman president of the New York Cancer Society. 

Wright retired in 1987, after which she was appointed Emeritus Professor at New York Medical College until her death in 2013. 

14. Dorothy Vaughan was an important "human computer" for NASA

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Beverly Golemba/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Mathematician and computer scientist

Date of birth: September 20, 1910

Place of birth: Morgantown, West Virginia

Date of death: November 10, 2008

Vaughan graduated from Beechurst High School in 1925. She would later earn her B.A. in Mathematics from Wilberforce University in 1929 and taught High School mathematics to support her family during the great depression. 

In 1943, she took what she thought was a temporary war job processing aeronautical research at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Jim Crow laws at the time required her to work separately from her white female counterparts. 

In 1949, Vaughan was promoted to lead the group, making her the NACA's first black supervisor, and allowing her to collaborate on projects with other well-known human computers. In 1958, when the NACA made the transition to NASA, segregation at the institute was abolished, and  Vaughan joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD).

She was an expert programmer, making ground-breaking advancements in the proliferation of FORTRAN and made significant contributions to the U.S. Space Program. She would be a lifelong advocate for racial and female equality.

15. Ronald McNair was one of the crew on the space shuttle Challenger 

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Physicist

Date of birth: October 21, 1950

Place of birth: Lake City, South Carolina

Date of death: January 28, 1986 

McNair was born in 1950 and would graduate from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971. He later earned his Doctorate in Physics in 1976 from MIT.

Post-academia McNair was selected for the NASA Astronaut Program. After his mandatory training, he clocked up 191 hours in space on the STS 41-B mission that launched in 1984. While at NASA, he worked on the development of HF/DF and high-pressure CO lasers.

Tragically, McNair died in the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion in 1986. 

16. Katherine Johnson was another pioneering NASA mathematician

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: NASA/Sean Smith/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Physicist and mathematician

Date of birth: August 26, 1918

Place of birth: White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

Date of death: February 24, 2020

Johnson was the youngest of four children. She would show an interest and aptitude for mathematics at a young age, which her parents nurtured into her adulthood. 

Because her home county did not offer public schooling for African-American students past the eighth grade, her family arranged for her to attend high school in West Virginia. Johnson attended West Virginia State University, and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in Mathematics and French, at the age of 18.

Post-graduation she worked for a time as a school teacher before joining NACA at Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1952. At NACA, Johnson first worked as a "human computer" and then, after NACA became NASA, on the space program, where she became an aerospace technologist, calculating the trajectories for many NASA missions.

During the Mercury space missions, when NASA began using electronic computers for the first time, astronaut John Glenn apparently refused to fly unless Johnson first verified the calculations. She also published 26 scientific papers throughout her career. 

17. Warren M. Washington is a highly influential atmospheric scientist

african american scientists warren washington
Source: Oregon State University/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Meteorologist/atmospheric scientist

Date of birth: August 28, 1936

Place of birth: Portland, Oregon

Washington was born in 1936 to his father, a waiter, and his mother, a practical nurse. Initially advised to study business, at a young age he chose to become a scientist instead. This decision would lead him to become one of the nation's most influential atmospheric scientists.

Warren earned his bachelor's degree in physics and master's degree in Meteorology from Oregon State University. He would later earn his Ph.D. in Meteorology from Pennsylvania State University in 1964.

Warren worked as a research assistant post-academia and later served as an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan. He would later work for the National Center for Atmospheric Research from 1972 onwards. By 1987, he had worked his way up to the position of Director of the Climate and Global Dynamics Division.

Warren served as the President’s National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere between 1978 and 1984 and was elected the President of the American Meteorological Society in 1994.

18. Annie Easley was an actual rocket scientist

34 highly influential African American scientists
Annie Easley. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Computer scientist, mathematician, rocket scientist

Date of birth: April 23, 1933

Place of birth: Birmingham, Alabama

Date of death: June 25, 2011

Easley was a trailblazing computer scientist and rocket scientist who developed a variety of critically important NASA software systems. She is, however, best known for her work on NASA's Centaur Rocket.

Easley initially began her career studying to become a pharmacist at Xavier University. She soon became disillusioned and quit in 1954. 

After getting married she worked as a substitute teacher but in 1955 she joined the ranks of 'Human Computers' at NACA. She remained with the organization when NACA morphed into NASA and later earned her B.Sc. in Mathematics from Cleveland University in 1977. 

Annie remained with NACA/NASA for 34 years with her later research focussing on alternative-energy technologies and conservation systems. 

19. Arthur B. C. Walker Jr. made significant contributions to optics

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Math.Buffalo

Scientific discipline: Physicist

Date of birth: August 24, 1936

Place of birth: Cleveland, Ohio

Date of death: April 29, 2001

Walker was born as the only child to a lawyer father and social worker mother in 1936. He would later graduate from the Case Western Institute of Technology in 1957 with a bachelor's degree in physics. He acquired his master's in 1958 and Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1962 from the University of Illinois. 

He entered military service in 1962 as an Air Force second lieutenant assigned to the weapons laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. There he helped to construct instrumentation for an experiment to launch a satellite to measure Van Allen belt radiation. From 1965 to 1974 he worked at the Space Physics Laboratory of the Aerospace Corporation in California where he developed a deep understanding of solar radiation, specifically extreme UV light and soft X-Rays.

Arthur applied his knowledge by collaborating with other scientists to develop the scientific technique of multilayer technology. This would ultimately lead to the development of technology that can be found on two of NASA's major satellites.

Walker became a professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford University in 1974, where his first doctoral student was future astronaut Sally K. Ride, the first American woman in space. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Walker was appointed to chair the presidential commission that investigated the disaster. 

Walker is best known for his pioneering work in EUV/XUV optics and solar telescopes. These telescopes would be used to produce the first images of the Sun's outer atmosphere during the 1980s. In the 1990s he led a team of scientists who, among other things, were the first to apply normal incidence X-ray optical systems to astronomical observation.

20. Neil deGrasse Tyson needs no introduction

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Astrophysicist

Date of birth: October 5, 1958

Place of birth: New York City, NY

Tyson was the second of three children and spent his early childhood in Castle Hill the Bronx. His interest in Astrophysics was sparked by his first-ever visit to the Hayden Planetarium when he was nine years old. 

Tyson would turn his childhood passion into a lifetime career by studying undergraduate Physics at Havard University and gaining a master's degree at the University of Austin. He then completed an MPhil in Astrophysics at Columbia University in 1989 before earning his Ph.D. in Astrophysics at Columbia in 1991.

He lectured during his MPhil and Ph.D. at Princeton and later joined the Hayden Planetarium in 1994. Tyson was quickly promoted to the position of Director of the planetarium in 1995 and formed part of the 12-member commission to study the Future of the US Aerospace Industry for the Bush Administration. 

Tyson soon became an accomplished scientist in his own right and published a catalog of research papers and 13 books. He is best known by many for his high profile media appearances on PBS' "origins" series and the History Channel's "The Universe", not to mention his regular radio series "Star Talk".

21. Bettye Washington Greene was an important industrial chemist

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Science History Institute/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Chemist

Date of birth: March 20, 1935

Place of birth: Fort Worth, Texas

Date of death: June 16, 1995

Greene was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and earned her B.Sc. in Chemistry for the Tuskegee Institute in 1955, and her Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Wayne State University in 1962. 

After her doctorate, she would join the Dow Chemical Company's Research Laboratory in Midland, Michigan in 1965. Greene is best known for her research and development into the production of latex and other polymers. She is also credited as the first African-American female chemist to work at Dow Chemical Company in a professional position.

She was promoted to Senior Research Chemist in 1970. She would continue working for Dow until her retirement in 1990.

22. Charles Henry Turner discovered that honeybees see in color

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: William Avery/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Scientist, research biologist, educator, zoologist, and comparative psychologist

Date of birth: February 3, 1867

Place of birth: Cincinnati, Ohio

Date of death: February 14, 1923

In 1886, after his graduation as class valedictorian, Turner enrolled in the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a B.S. degree in biology in 1891, and an M.Sc. degree, also in biology, the following year. 

He held teaching positions at various colleges before returning to school in 1907 and becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in zoology (magna cum laude) from the University of ChicagoAfter his time at university, he devoted his life to teaching High School and conducting research in entomology. 

Turner would publish more than 70 scientific papers throughout his life. These included some fairly influential pieces, such as Hunting Habits of an American Sand Wasp, Psychological Notes on the Gallery Spider.

His fascination with insects would also lead him to show that insects can hear and distinguish pitch, can learn through trial and error and that honeybees can see in color (sort of). 

23. Lloyd Albert Quarterman loved fluorine

african american scientists quarternan
Source: Atomic Heritage

Scientific discipline: Chemist

Date of birth: May 31, 1918

Place of birth: Philadelphia

Date of death: July 1982

Born in Philadelphia in 1918, Quarterman would soon develop an interest in ChemistryHe attended St Augustine's College, Raleigh, North Carolina where he earned his bachelor's degree in chemistry in 1943.

Shortly after graduating, he was recruited by the War Department to work on the Manhattan Project, becoming one of the very few Black American scientists to be recruited onto the top-secret project. Though he was only a junior chemist on the project, Quarterman had the opportunity to work closely with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago and with Albert Einstein at Columbia University.

Quarterman was primarily responsible for the design and implementation of a distillation process for purifying large quantities of hydrogen fluoride, needed to separate and enrich Uranium-235 isotopes. 

After the war, he worked at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, where he would remain for the next thirty years.

Beyond his work on the bomb, Quarterman worked with fluoride solutions to create new chemical compounds. In 1967, he developed a corrosive resistant “window” made of diamonds in order to better study hydrogen fluoride.  He also created a novel xenon compound and assisted in the development of the first nuclear reactor for atomic-powered submarines.

24. Joan Murrell Owens discovered some new species of coral

african american scientists owens
Source: Howard University

Scientific discipline: Marine biologist

Date of birth: June 30, 1933

Place of birth: Miami, Florida

Date of death: May 25, 2011

Owens was born in Miami, Florida, and was the youngest of three children. Growing up near the sea, she soon showed an interest in ocean life and her parents encouraged her ambitions to become a marine biologist. 

She attended Fisk University, which didn’t offer any Marine Biology courses. So instead, Owens studied Fine Art, and later received an MS degree in guidance counseling and reading therapy. She went on to teach children at a psychiatric hospital, undergraduate students, and educationally disadvantaged high school students, setting up educational programs that still influence US government policy.

She never forgot her childhood dream, however, and in 1970 she entered George Washington University, combining modules in geology and zoology to create the equivalent to a marine biology course. which together, allowed her to study marine biology. She received her BS in geology in 1973 and her MS in 1976, returning to Howard as a professor of geology in 1976. In 1985, Owens became the first African American woman to gain a geology PhD. 

Because she had sickle cell traits, Owens was unable to Scuba dive and concentrated instead on laboratory work with previously-collected coral specimens collected from an 1880 British Expedition. 

After receiving her Ph.D. from George Washington University, Owens become a professor in the Department of Geology and Geography, and later in the Biology Department, at Howard University. 

Owens is best known for her discovery of several new species of the genus Rhombopsammia. She also added a new species to the genus Letepsammia in 1994, naming L. Franki for her husband, Frank A. Owens.

The vast majority of her research was limited to the lab, given her health issues, and was concerned with classifying and studying button corals from the Smithsonian Institution's collection. 

25. Margaret S. Collins made some big discoveries about termites

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Duckduckstop/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Zoologist and entomologist 

Date of birth: September 4, 1922

Place of birth: Institute, West Virginia

Date of death: April 27, 1996

Collins was born in September 1922 in Institute, West Virginia. As a child prodigy, she started college at the age of 14. Collins would earn her B.Sc. in Science and Biology from West Virginia State University in 1943 and her Ph.D. in 1950 from the University of Chicago. 

Her career would be spent teaching at Florida A&M University and Howard University, and conducting field research in North and South America. 

She became the first African American woman to gain an entomology Ph.D. and the third African American female zoologist in the US. She was also heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement and was a volunteer driver during the Tallahassee Bus Boycott. Her civil rights and equality activism resulted in her talks being targeted by bomb threats.

Collins' research was mainly concerned with termites. Specifically, their evolution, tolerance to high temperatures, defensive behaviors, general ecology, taxonomy, and etymology. During the late 70s through to the 90s, Collins researched termites in Guyana through the Smithsonian’s Department of Entomology. Through these expeditions, Collin’s informed Guyana’s military of methods for building in such a way as to avoid termite damage, and how to use termite excretions to strengthen building materials. 

She passed away whilst conducting research in the Cayman Islands in April 1996. 

26. Ernest Everett Just developed important physiology techniques

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Miranda/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline:  Microbiologist

Date of birth: August 14, 1883

Place of birth: South Carolina

Date of death: October 27, 1941

Just was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and studied at Dartmouth College, where graduated as the sole magna cum laude student in 1907,  receiving honors in botany, sociology, and history.

During his career, Just worked at Howard University and at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he studied experimental embryology and graduated magna cum laude.

Just is best known for his pioneering work in developing certain techniques in a number of areas of physiology. These included advancements in fertilization, experimental parthenogenesis, cell division, hydration, diversion, dehydration of cells, and UV carcinogenic radiation effects on cells.

Just was also the editor for no fewer than three scholarly periodicals and was a Julius Rosenwald Fellow in Biology, enabling him to work in Europe. He published many papers during his time in Europe including his contributions to the 1924 textbook General Cytology.

27. James Andrew Harris helped find some new elements

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: Lbl.gov

Scientific discipline: Nuclear chemist

Date of birth: March 26, 1932

Place of birth: Waco, Texas

Date of death: December 12, 2000

After graduating from high school, Harris attended Huston-Tillotson College, where he earned his undergraduate degree in Chemistry in 1953. He struggled to find work as a chemist due to racial discrimination and served in the army before eventually joining the Tracerlab in Richmond, California, where he worked as a radiochemist. In 1960, he accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley’s Lawrence Radiation Lab, where Harris became the first Black chemist involved in programs that identified or produced new elements.

Despite not having a Ph.D., Harris led the Heavy Isotopes Production Group as a part of the Nuclear Chemistry Division. Harris is best known for his contribution to the discovery of Rutherfordium (Element 104) and Dubnium (Element 105). Although an equal claim was made by a Russian team around the same time. 

The dispute was resolved when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (UPAC) accepted both claims and ruled on the current naming of both elements.

After the discovery of elements 104 and 105, Harris and the UOC team continued to search for other super-heavy elements in hope of finding useful applications in medicine and energy production. 

28. Emmett Chappelle helped look for life on Mars

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: NASA

Scientific discipline: Biochemist and astrochemist

Date of birth: October 24, 1925

Place of birth: Pheonix, Arizona

Date of death: October 14, 2019

Chappelle grew up on a small farmstead on the edge of Pheonix, Arizona. He would later join the U.S. Army during the Second World War, where he received some training in engineering. He was re-assigned to the all-black 91st Infantry Division and deployed to Italy. 

After the war, he earned his B.Sc. in Biology from the University of California in 1950 and then taught biochemistry at Meharry Medical College for several years, during which he began research into iron recycling by red blood cells and anaphylactic shock. He received several offers from prominent schools and received his masters' in Biology in 1954 from the University of Washington.

Chappelle began a Ph.D. at Stanford and left to join the Research Institute for Advanced Studies in 1958. There, his research focused on ensuring safe, breathable air for astronauts. He moved to NASA in 1966 and worked there until his retirement in 2001.

Chappelle is most famed for his work on the detection of life on Mars and improvements to environmental management. He wrote more than 35 peer-reviewed papers scientific or technical publications, nearly 50 conference papers, and co-authored or edited numerous publications in his field. He also held 14 patents, mostly relating to fluorescence tests, and in 2007 he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame for his work on fluorescence in organisms.

Chappelle was also honored in the "Top 100 Black American scientists and engineers of the 20th Century" and received the Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal from NASA.

29. Patricia S. Cowings helped astronauts deal with zero gravity

34 highly influential African American scientists
Source: NASA

Scientific discipline: Aerospace psychophysiologist

Date of birth: December 1948

Place of birth:  The Bronx, New York

Cowings earned her psychology doctorate from the University of California, Davis, in 1973. She joined NASA in 1971, as a graduate student.

She was the first American woman to be trained as a scientist-astronaut by NASA and was an alternate for a space flight in 1979. Although she never made it to space, she has spent her career at NASA helping astronauts better adapt to space by studying the effects of gravity on human physiology and performance.

Cowings has spent her career as the principal investigator on various studies. Perhaps most notably, the Autogenetic-Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE) – a treatment for space motion sickness.

The technique teaches astronauts to control 20 physiological responses from heart rate to involuntary muscle contractions. Patricia received many awards and honors throughout her career. These included the NASA Individual Achievement Award in 1993 and the National Women of Color Technology Award in 2006, to name a few. 

30. Charles R. Drew helped developed safe blood transfusions

african american scientists drew
Source: Hugo L. Gonzalez/Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Medical doctor and researcher

Date of birth: June 1904

Place of birth:  Washington D.C.

Date of death: April 1, 1950

Charles R. Drew was born in Washington D.C. in 1904 into a middle-class family. His father was a carpet layer and his mother was a trained teacher. 

Drew spent his early-teenage years as a paperboy, while also attending the local Dunbar High School. After graduating in 1922, he won a sports scholarship to Amherst College in Massachusetts and graduated in 1926. 

After college, he didn't have the money for medical school and worked as a biology instructor and a coach for Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore for two years prior before going to medical school at McGill University in Canada. It was here that Drew was first introduced to the field of blood transfusion and preservation - a subject that would dominate the rest of this, sadly, short life.

Graduating in 1933, Drew was second in his class and earned both Doctor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees.

In 1940, prior to earning his Ph.D., Drew was recruited by John Scudder to help develop a prototype program for blood storage and preservation to help with the British war effort. His work proved revolutionary, cementing his name and reputation in history. 

Soon after, Drew would be appointed as the director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank. He would also be honored as being selected to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. After the war, and up to his death in 1950, Drew would continue to research and teach in his field to much acclaim. 

Drew died in 1950 at the age of 45 after a serious car crash. Since his death, Drew has been honored by various medical and higher education institutions, schools, and other American public services with names of buildings, departments, and awards named in his honor.  

31. Marie Van Brittan Brown developed an early CCTV system

african american scientists brown
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Nurse and inventor

Date of birth: October 1922

Place of birth: Queens, New York

Date of death: February 2, 1999

Marie Van Brittan Brown was born on the 30th of October 1922 in Queens, New York. As an adult, Brown worked as a nurse while her husband was an electrician. 

She and her husband's work often led to them working long hours, and often leaving her home alone at night.  This, combined with the time it took for police to respond to call-outs in her crime-ridden neighborhood inspired her to develop one of the first home security systems ever developed. 

Initially developing an innovative camera and peephole system for her front door, she later decided that a radio-controlled, wireless system of cameras and wireless televisions would be more practical. She eventually used a radio-controlled system that could stream the video to any television in the house.  Later developments included a two-way microphone system that allowed occupants to talk remotely to whoever was on the doorstep. 

Realizing the potential for her invention, on August 1, 1966, Marie and her husband submitted a patent application for her invention. It would be the first patent of its kind, and her husband's name was below hers. The patent was granted by the government on December 2, 1969, and four days later, the New York Times ran an article about her invention.

After an initially slow uptake by potential customers, Brown's CCTV system would eventually set the standard for all modern systems. 

32. Percy Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of some important drugs

african american scientists percy
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scientific discipline: Chemistry

Date of birth: April 1899

Place of birth: Montgomery, Alabama

Date of death: April 19, 1975

Percy Julian was born on the 11th of April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. The grandson of former slaves, Julian would study at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, graduating first in his class.

After college, Julian worked as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University before leaving in 1923, after receiving a scholarship to attend Havard University. He would later acquire his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, Austria, in 1931. 

Percy Julian is best known as a pioneering chemist in the chemical synthesis of some important medicinal drugs like cortisone, steroids, and birth control pills. He would receive various patents for his work and be honored with various awards, medals, and other honors in his lifetime.

33. George Robert Carruthers was pivotal for the Apollo 16 mission

african american scientists carruthers
Source: Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Scientific discipline: Physicist, engineer, space scientist, and inventor

Date of birth: October 1939

Place of birth: Cincinnati, Ohio

Date of death: December 26, 2020

George Robert Carruthers was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on the 1st of October 1939. His father was a civil engineer and his mother a homemaker and later worked for the Postal Service. He was fascinated by popular science from a young age, which led him, inevitably, to develop an interest in pursuing a career in physics and astronomy. 

At the age of about 10, Curruthers built his own telescope out of common household items and lenses, using money he'd earned as a delivery boy. He would later graduate from Englewood High School before attending and graduating from the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and received a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1961.

He would complete his master's in nuclear engineering in 1962 from the University of Illinois before receiving his Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1964. 

He is best known for his work on the perfection of a compact and very powerful ultraviolet camera/spectrograph. His spectrograph and image converter provided the first proof of the existence of molecular hydrogen in interstellar space and was used by NASA during the first lunar walk of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. 

34. Walter Lincoln Hawkins helped pioneer polymer chemistry

african american scientists hawkins
Source: Plastics Industry Association

Scientific discipline: Chemistry

Date of birth: March 1911

Place of birth: Washington D.C.

Date of death: August 20, 1992

Walter Lincoln Hawkins was born on the 21st of March 1911 in Washington D.C., the grandson of slaves. His father was a lawyer and his mother was a science teacher in the local school system.

From an early age, Hawkins was fascinated by how things worked, leading him to often dismantle toys to try to figure out how they operated. Together with a friend, he even attempted to make a perpetual motion machine, but soon realized it was a fool's errand. 

After graduating high school, Hawkins would receive his B.Sc. in chemical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 1932. Unable to find work at the height of the Great Depression, Hawkins enrolled at Howard University and earned his master's in chemistry. 

He would later acquire his Ph.D. in chemistry from McGill University. After graduating from McGill in 1938, Hawkins began an over four-decade career with Bell Laboratories, the first Black person to join the technical staff there. At Bell, he was instrumental in developing long-lasting plastic to sheath telephone cables. 

His work would literally help thousands of Americans have access to telephone services - especially those in the most rural parts of the country. 

And that is your lot for today. These are but some of the many notable and influential African American scientists, inventors, and pioneers over the years. We'll let you discover more about them in your own time.  

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