Trailblazers: African-American women in STEM

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Kate Hall celebrates four formidable African-American scientists who fought racial and gender biases in their field.

Rebecca Lee Crumpler

In 1864, Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the only African-American to graduate from New England Female Medical College with an M.D. degree, gaining her the title of the first Black female physician in the US. Additionally, Crumpler was the only female physician to be recognised as an author in the 19th century with ‘The Book of Medical Discourses’ published in 1883. Throughout her career, Crumpler cared for women and children in poverty as well as providing medical access to freed slaves after the Civil War. Access to medical education as a Black woman was practically unattainable in the 1800s due to the prominent racial and sexual discrimination which Crumpler was well-accustomed with. Her work within the field of science deserves to be recognised and revered as she paved the way for future Black female scientists. 

Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Image: Atkins HS.

Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown

The first Black woman to practise as a recognised surgeon in the US was Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown. Alongside this achievement she was also the first African-American woman to become a Tennessee legislator and the first single woman in Tennessee to adopt a child. Not dissimilar to other Black female scientists, Brown encountered discrimination regarding her gender as she was primarily denied surgical residency at Harlem Hospital, New York. However, this did not dissuade her, and she obtained a residency at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, which she completed in 1954. Despite the barriers she confronted, Brown’s perseverance is what makes her such an influential figure inside and outside the STEM environment. 

Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown. Image: Clio.

Mary Jackson

In 2016, the film Hidden Figures was released, based on true events and the non-fiction book ‘Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’ by Margaret Lee Shetterly. The film encapsulates ‘the story of a team of female mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the years of the U.S space program’. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson are the three women at the focus of the film and were integral in their roles at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. In 1958, Mary Jackson was the first Black female aeronautical engineer to work at NASA which was progressive for the time. Jackson’s career began at the West Computing Area in the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory where segregation guidelines were intact. During her career she conducted research within high-speed wind tunnels and proceeded to study the behaviour of airflow around airplanes. After working as an aerospace engineer for 20 years, and due to her inability to acquire a higher position within NASA, she undertook the post of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager where she was determined to enhance the opportunities for women’s roles within NASA. 

Mary Jackson. Image: NASA.

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly is renowned for being the first African-American woman to attain a PhD in Chemistry in the US. Born in in New York in 1921, Daly was awarded her doctorate by Columbia University in 1947 with her thesis entitled A study of the products formed by the action of pancreatic amylase on corn starch. Throughout her career, she conducted several pioneering studies on research areas including nucleic acids, histones, the impact of cholesterol on hypertension, and creatine in muscle cells. Alongside her impactful contribution to science, Daly established a scholarship at Queens College, her alma mater, to encourage minority students to study science. 

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly. Image: Colombia University.

By Kate Hall