Since before the Civil War, Black scientists have been conducting pioneering research that has changed the way we still live and work today. Despite experiencing racial bias from an early age, these remarkable people kept their eyes on the prize. They persevered when educational opportunities were barred because of prejudice, and found ways to do research when employment was denied for no reason other than the color of their skin.
From well-known Black scientists, such as George Washington Carver, to James West, who coinvented the microphone, to those whose impressive scientific records have nearly languished in obscurity, our list will have you rethinking what else might be left out of your history textbook.
10. George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver was a scientist and inventor best-known for discovering 100 uses for the peanut, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg in his remarkable life. He was born to enslaved parents on a Missouri farm at the close of the Civil War and kidnapped by raiders a week later, becoming an orphan in the process.
Carver’s former owners, Moses and Susan Carver, eventually located and returned Carver to the farm of his birth. In the years that followed, Susan Carver taught him to read and write because local schools did not allow Black students.
The experience sparked an interest in lifelong learning. Carver self-directed his way through high school and conducted biological experiments of his own design. Eventually, he enrolled in Iowa State Agricultural College’s botany program, where he earned a master’s degree — and a reputation as a brilliant scientist, teacher and advocate for farmers. He then became an instructor at the famed Tuskegee Institute, working alongside Booker T. Washington.
In addition to developing crop rotation methods for sharecroppers, many of whom were former slaves, Carver designed a horse-drawn classroom to illustrate his methods firsthand. He also pioneered a series of practical inventions that would make farming more profitable and less dependent on cotton, including more than 100 ways to monetize sweet potatoes, soy beans and peanuts with a conversion into dyes, plastics and fuel.
Carver became an adviser on agricultural matters to President Theodore Roosevelt, and in 1916, one of the few American members of the British Royal Society of Arts. Carver died in 1943, at age 78 [source: Biography].
9. James West
The next time you hear a telephone ring, think of James West. West is a Southern-born scientist best known for his 1962 coinvention of the electret microphone, a device that converts sound to electrical signals.
A stunning 90 percent of microphones currently designed or produced — ranging from telephones and hearing aids to portable recorders — are based on West’s work, the bulk of which occurred during his four decades at Bell Labs. During that time, West was granted more than 200 U.S. and foreign patents, and achieved dozens of professional honors, including inductions into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Engineering. Upon his retirement in 2001, West joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.
It’s been an impressive career arc for West, whose parents once cautioned against scientific pursuits. West’s father pointed out three Black men with doctorates in chemistry and physics working at the local post office and wondered whether his son’s physics degree would simply become a winding road to a blue-collar job. But West was hired by Bell Labs right after graduating from Temple University. He’d interned there during his college summers [source: Homewood].
8. Charles H. Turner
Behavioral scientist Charles H. Turner is best known for his discovery that insects can hear. He was born in 1867 to working-class parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, and became the first African American to earn a doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago.
Turner’s research centered on animal behavior, and he developed a series of techniques to study and measure how insects learn. For example, Turner was the first to discover insects could hear and that they were capable of changing their behavior based on previous experiences. Notably, his research showed that honeybees could recognize colors and patterns. (A former student wrote about one experiment: “The bees appeared at the table at all three meals. Then Dr. Turner put jam only at breakfast daily. They still came to each meal but found no jam at noon and night. Soon they stopped coming. This shows they have some idea of time” [source: Abramson]).
Much of his work was done without the benefit of laboratory space or research assistants, since Turner taught at high schools. Yet his findings dramatically changed the way scientists understood invertebrate species. Turner died in 1923, but many of his methods are still in use today [source: Biography].
7. Mae Jemison
When Mae Jemison peered back at Earth from the space shuttle Endeavour, she felt a sense of unity — with her hometown of Chicago far below, with every star in the galaxy and, importantly, with her childhood dreams of becoming a scientist. She was the first Black female astronaut to travel into space.
Jemison, born in 1956, grew up loving both the sciences and the arts. In college, she studied Russian and Swahili, and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering before completing medical school. She also took modern dance classes at the Alvin Ailey School.
The polymath joined NASA’s astronaut training program in 1987 and the Endeavour space shuttle crew in 1992. She was part of an eight-day mission that completed 127 Earth orbits and used her time in space to do bone cell research [sources: NASA, National Women’s History Museum].
After leaving NASA in 1993, Jemison founded The Jemison Group to explore products that connect technology and science, and also BioSentient Corp., which focuses on medical technology projects. She also penned an autobiography, started an international sciences camp for children and appeared on science-related television shows, including “Star Trek: The Next Generation” [source: Changing the Face of Medicine].
The Google Doodle for March 8, 2019 (International Women’s Day), featured a quote from Jemison: “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” [source: Bach].
6. Percy L. Julian
Percy Julian was the grandson of enslaved people but became one of history’s greatest synthetic chemists, allowing many drugs to reach patients at much lower costs and wider availability.
He was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, into a family that understood the transformative power of higher education. At 17, he enrolled in dual coursework as a high school senior and freshman at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, while also working to pay his way through school. Julian studied chemistry and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1920; he was the class valedictorian. After a brief stint as a teacher, he attended Harvard and earned a master’s degree, followed by a doctorate from the University of Vienna. By 36, he’d returned to DePauw to conduct research and was the first to synthesize physostigmine, an alkaloid that occurs naturally in the calabar bean and is used to treat glaucoma.
Although Julian faced barriers — he was once denied a research position because a town law forbade Black people to stay overnight — he was propelled by his work. His soybean compound research led to a number of patents and pioneering medications like synthetic versions of the female hormone progesterone and the steroid cortisone (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis). Julian also produced a fire-retardant foam widely used during World War II.
By 62, he’d formed and sold his private enterprise, Julian Laboratories, for more than $2 million and continued to work as a researcher and consultant until his death in 1975 [source: American Chemical Society].
5. Neil deGrasse Tyson
As the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, Neil deGrasse Tyson can be found encouraging children to explore the world around them. It’s a nice turnaround since a visit to a planetarium in the mid-1960s ignited a 9-year-old Tyson’s own passion for the stars.
Tyson is an astrophysicist by trade and science enthusiast by nature, and is considered one of the driving forces behind Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet. Throughout his career, the Harvard- and Columbia-educated scientist has repackaged complex theories and universal mysteries into essays, presentations and books aimed at laypeople. He’s hosted PBS’s “Nova ScienceNow” series and produces a StarTalk Radio podcast and radio program. Tyson also helped resurrect Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” television series; he hosted the rebooted version, which debuted in 2014. A sequel series, “Cosmos: Possible Worlds,” which premiered March 9, 2020, was also hosted by Tyson.
Tyson has served as an adviser on the aerospace industry to President George W. Bush and on a later commission focused on space exploration policy. He was even voted People Magazine’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” in 2000 [sources: Biography, The Planetary Society].
4. David Harold Blackwell
David Harold Blackwell was one of the world’s most notable statisticians, but as a child he didn’t particularly like math. That was until he met the right teacher who opened a numerical world to him.
Blackwell, born in 1919, grew up in southern Illinois and by 16 was enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At 22, he graduated from his home state university with a doctoral degree in mathematics and then studied at Princeton. Although Blackwell aspired to a teaching position, racial bias closed doors; he was denied posts at Princeton and at the University of California at Berkeley. However, he was offered a position at Howard University. (Berkeley later offered Blackwell a teaching job, and he became the university’s first Black tenured professor in 1954).
While at Howard, Blackwell studied game theory and how it applied to decision-making in the government and private sectors during summers at RAND Corp. He became the United States’ leading expert on the subject, authoring a widely respected textbook on game theory, as well as research that resulted in several theorems named for him. One such theory, which explains how to turn rough guesses into on-target estimates, is known as the Rao-Blackwell theorem and remains an integral part of modern economics. In 1965, he became the first African American to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. He died in 2010 [sources: Sanders, Sorkin].
3. Marie Maynard Daly
Marie Maynard Daly was a pioneer in the study of the effects of cholesterol and sugar on the heartand the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. She was born in 1921, at a time when minority women often were denied educational and employment opportunities, but she didn’t allow prejudice to stop her pursuit of the sciences. By 1942, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with honors from Queens College in New York. She went on to complete a master’s degree, also in chemistry, just one year later.
It was while earning her doctoral degree from Columbia University that Daly’s research really began to gel. She discovered how internally produced compounds help digestion and spent much of her career as a professor researching cell nuclei. Importantly, she discovered the link between high cholesterol and clogged arteries, which helped advance the study of heart disease. She also studied the effects of sugar on arteries, and cigarette smoking on lung tissue. Daly established a scholarship fund for Black students at Queens College in 1988. She died in 2003 [sources: Wong, Chemical Heritage Foundation].
2. Patricia Bath
Patricia Bath improved the vision of generations thanks to her invention of a laser probe for cataract treatment.
Born in 1942, Bath’s educational achievements began early. She graduated from high school in only two years, then earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College and a medical degree from Howard University before accepting an ophthalmology fellowship at Columbia University. It was during this fellowship that Bath’s research uncovered some staggering statistics: When compared with her other patients, Black people were eight times more likely to develop glaucoma and twice as likely to go blind from it. She set her sights on developing a process to increase eye care for people unable to pay, now called community ophthalmology, which operates worldwide. Bath became the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973, and the first woman to join the ophthalmology department at UCLA in 1975.
By 1981, Bath was hard at work on her most notable invention, a laser probe that precisely removed cataracts in a less-invasive way. Using the laserphaco probe she devised, she was able to restore sight to patients who had been blind for as long as 30 years. In 1988, she became the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. After her retirement in 1993, Bath continued to advocate for the medically underserved and focused on the use of technology to offer medical services in remote regions. She died in May 2019 after a short illness [source: Biography].
1. Ernest Everett Just
In 1916, Ernest Everett Just became the first Black man to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in experimental embryology, but perhaps his greatest legacy is the sheer number of scientific papers he authored during his career.
Just was born in 1883 and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, where he knew from an early age he was headed for college. He studied zoology and cell development at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and worked as a biochemist studying cells at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts. He became a biology instructor at Howard University before finishing his Ph.D., and would spend 20 summers also working at Woods Hole. From 1920 to 1931 he was awarded a biology fellowship by the National Research Council. Just pioneered research into cell fertilization, division, hydration and the effects of carcinogenic radiation on cells.
Frustrated that no major American university would hire him because of racism, Just relocated to Europe in 1930. Once there, he wrote the bulk of his 70 professional papers, as well as two books. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1941 [sources: Biography, Genetics].
Originally Published: Feb 11, 2014