Making a mark in your chosen field isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s even harder when you have to be a pioneer for your race as well. This Black History Month, we want to recognize just a few of the black scientists who have made a difference – not just in their respective fields but also impacted the lives of millions of people across the globe. From important medical advances, to inventing something that kids of all ages can enjoy, this group of extraordinary minds made the world better in their own ways.
Alice Augusta Ball was a chemist who came up with a revolutionary treatment for Hansen’s disease (leprosy). She was also the first African-American and female chemistry professor at the University of Hawaii’s chemistry department. While studying for her masters at the University of Hawaii, she found a way to make chaulmoogra oil, which was already being used to treat the disease with little success, injectable and absorbable by the body. She did this by isolating the ethyl ester compounds from the fatty acids of the oil. This allowed patients to be treated in the hospital or in their homes rather being exiled to the island of Molokai.
Sadly, Augusta Ball died before she could publish her results and man named Arthur L. Dean took credit for the method. In 2000 the University of Hawaii finally honored Ball with a plaque on the school’s only chaulmoogra tree. That same day, former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29th “Alice Ball Day” which is celebrated every four years. In March of 2016, Hawai’i Magazine ranked Ball in a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.
Percy Lavon Julian was also a pioneering black chemist. He was an innovator in the field of synthesizing medicinal drugs from plants. He was the first to synthesize the natural-produced physostigmine. He was also a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of human hormones progesterone and testosterone from plant sterols like stigmasterol and sitosterol. It was because of his work that we were able to develop steroids like cortisone and other corticosteroids as well as birth control.
Over the course of his life, Julian received more than 130 chemical patents and was one of the first black students to receive a doctorate in chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second black man inducted from any field.
Lonnie Johnson is another black innovator that you can thank for inventing something that you’re probably very familiar with. The engineer started his career with the US Air Force in 1928 as the acting chief of Space Nuclear Power Safety section. He moved to different departments during his career with the Air Force including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Strategic Air Command, and Advanced Space Systems requirements. Then he became an engineer on the Mariner Mark II Spacecraft series for Comet Rendezvous and Saturn Orbiter Probe missions.
While he was in the US Air Force, he also spent time inventing things as a hobby. In October of 1983, he applied for a patent for what is now known as the SuperSoaker. He then went on to invent a “pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like,” which became the Nerf gun. Hasbro (the company that eventually bought the company that SuperSoaker was sold to) says that SuperSoakers have brought in almost $1 billion in sales. Today Johnson lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and four children. He founded Johnson Research and Development in 1991 where he still serves as president.
As you can see, black scientists are responsible for a great many innovations. Whether they find a new way to treat a disease or find a new way to have some fun, they have made an indelible mark on the field of science and on the world as a whole.