As Black History month comes to a close, we pay tribute to seven scientists who have made incredible contributions to the advancement of science. From groundbreaking researchers in fields like physics and chemistry to innovators in biology and medicine. Learn more about their incredible stories and how their legacy continues to shape our world.
Dr. Mae Jemison - an astronaut, physician, and engineer
Mae Jemison is a scientist, doctor, and entrepreneur who blazed a trail in space exploration. She was born in 1956 in Decatur, Alabama, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois.
She became the first Black woman to fly into space on the Space Shuttle Endeavor, completing a record-breaking eight days in orbit. After her mission with NASA, she founded two technology companies and has since become a professor at Cornell University, lecturing on subjects related to science and technology.
Throughout her career, Dr. Jemison has been widely recognized for her achievements, including being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and receiving several honorary degrees from universities worldwide. In addition, her contributions to science continue to inspire generations of young people to pursue their dreams.
George Washington Carver - a botanist and inventor
George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who dedicated his life to finding solutions to the challenges of farming. Born into slavery in Missouri around 1864, he became one of the most prominent scientists and inventors of his time. He developed hundreds of products using peanuts and other crops, such as sweet potatoes, soybeans, and pecans. He also promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion.
Carver's research helped farmers diversify their crops and improve their yields. He developed more than 300 products from peanuts alone, including dyes, plastics, gasoline, glue, ink, soap, cosmetics, wood stains, etc. His inventions were not only useful but also profitable for farmers. He also created a mobile classroom that traveled around rural areas teaching farmers about crop rotation and soil conservation techniques.
Carver's work earned him numerous awards throughout his lifetime, including the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1923 for his achievements in agriculture science. In addition, in 1943, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his contributions to science and agriculture.
Today George Washington Carver is remembered as a pioneer in agricultural science whose inventions revolutionized farming practices across America. His legacy inspires generations of scientists and inventors who strive to make a difference through innovation, perseverance, and hard work.
Percy Julian, PhD - a chemist and inventor
Percy Julian was a chemist and businessman who made outstanding scientific contributions to the field of synthetic steroids. He was born in Alabama in 1899 during the harsh discrimination of the ‘Jim Crow’ south. By 1920, Julian overcame several obstacles and graduated from DePauw University as valedictorian, as one of the few Black students admitted to the University. He would then receive his MS in Chemistry from Harvard University through an Austin Fellowship, where he’d hoped to obtain his PhD. However, he worried that white students would resent being taught by a Black professor. Unfortunately, Harvard University withdrew Julian's teaching assistantship, making it impossible for him to complete his PhD. Despite this setback, Julian continued teaching, but this time at Howard University, an HBCU in the Washington, DC, area. During his time there, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, which allowed him to complete his PhD studies at the University of Vienna. He graduated in 1931 with honors.
After completing his studies, he worked as an industrial researcher for Glidden Company, where he helped develop a way to produce large quantities of hormones from soybean oil. His research was revolutionary for its time, leading to new treatments for illnesses such as arthritis, glaucoma, ulcers, and more. In 1935, he formed his own company, Julian Laboratories Inc., which became a leader in producing steroid drugs.
Percy Julian is known as a pioneer in chemical synthesis, with over 100 patents awarded during his lifetime. He received numerous awards and honorary degrees throughout his career, including election into the National Science Academy and National Academy of Sciences. In 1973, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame as one of the most influential inventors of the 20th century. Today, Percy Julian continues to be remembered as an inspirational figure whose groundbreaking discoveries helped revolutionize medicine and transform people's lives worldwide.
Shirley Ann Jackson - a theoretical physicist
Shirley Ann Jackson is a physicist and president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological university in the United States. Born in 1946, she was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in Theoretical Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Dr. Jackson has made significant contributions to science by researching subatomic particles, semiconductors, and solid-state physics. Her pioneering work led to breakthroughs in fiber optics technology that revolutionized travel and communication. She also served as Chairwoman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 1995 to 1999, making her the first Black woman and first-ever physicist appointed to the role.
In addition to her scientific achievements, Dr. Jackson has been widely recognized for her advocacy of science education and racial equality, including receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. She has also served on several scientific advisory boards and commissions throughout her career, including being appointed by multiple presidents over numerous terms.
Ernest Everett Just - a cell biology pioneer
Ernest Everett Just was a biologist whose groundbreaking research laid the foundation for modern cell science. Born in South Carolina in 1883, he earned his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth College. He then became the first Black scholar to receive a PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago.
Throughout his career, Just made numerous discoveries related to the development and behavior of marine organisms, including pioneering research on how cells move and divide. His most notable contributions include coining the term “polarity” in reference to cell structure as well as developing innovative approaches for studying fertilization mechanisms that are still used today.
Just also wrote several books and essays on topics such as race and racism, advocating for more equitable representation in scientific fields. In addition, he was deeply committed to promoting education, with scholarships created in his name to support Black students interested in pursuing a degree in science or medicine. In 1986, he was posthumously inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, cementing him as one of the most influential biologists ever.
Charles Drew - a physician and researcher
Charles Drew was an American physician, surgeon, and medical researcher who revolutionized how blood is stored and transfused. He was born in 1904 in Washington, D.C. He attended Amherst College, becoming the first African-American to do so.
Throughout his career, Dr. Drew made numerous contributions to medicine through his research on blood transfusions and storage methods. His pioneering work allowed for a large-scale collection of blood donations, eventually saving many lives during World War II and beyond. He also wrote several papers advocating for a greater need for equitable representation in medical fields, and improved access to healthcare for African Americans.
Dr. Charles Drew’s legacy lives on today, with multiple awards established in his honor and several universities and organizations bearing his name. His pioneering work has helped pave the way for more equitable access to health care and opportunity in scientific fields, creating a lasting impact in modern medicine that is still felt today.
Benjamin Banneker - a mathematician, astronomer, and inventor
Benjamin Banneker was an American mathematician and surveyor known for his groundbreaking scientific contributions. Born in Maryland in 1731, he was the son of a former slave and raised largely by his grandmother. Despite having a limited formal education, he became one of the most influential thought leaders of his time.
Banneker made numerous advances in mathematics, astronomy, and surveying, including becoming one of the first African Americans to publish works on mathematics and astronomy. He assisted with surveying the plans for Washington, DC, in 1791 and worked on the Mason-Dixon Line, a survey that established the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania. His work in surveying also led to an increased understanding of astronomy as he used his knowledge of mathematics to calculate eclipses and other astronomical events.
He also wrote letters advocating for greater civil rights in America during its early days, especially those related to slavery and other issues faced by African Americans.