Making History: African-American Pioneers of Science

Learn about these inspiring men and women.

Scientists, engineers, and inventors find the solutions to the world's problems. Learn about the work that these black scientists and inventors have accomplished that make our lives better.

George Washington Carver was an agricultural chemist who gained acclaim for his discovery of alternative farming methods. Carver is best known for his discovery of uses for the peanut. Among the products Carver developed from peanuts were soap, face powder, mayonnaise, shampoo, metal polish, and adhesives—but he did not invent peanut butter.

View Images
George Washington Carver is best known for his discovery of uses for the peanut.
View Images
Dorothy Vaughan's mathematical mind helped pave the way to launch satellites into space.

Known as a “human computer,” Dorothy Johnson Vaughan was part of a team that did mathematical calculations to help launch satellites—and later humans—into space. The group used math to help engineers figure out how wind and gravity affects aircrafts.

When she was first hired to work on the space program, Vaughan’s department was segregated, or separated, by race. She and the other African-American women in her unit used separate dining areas and bathrooms. Six years after she was hired, Vaughan became the manager of her division and its first black supervisor.

A decade later, the agency desegregated and she joined the Analysis and Computation division, where she learned computer programming and worked on the program that launched John Glenn and other astronauts into space for the first time. The accomplishments of Vaughan and other female African-American mathematicians was the focus of the book and movie Hidden Figures.

Mark E. Dean is one of the top engineering minds at the International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation. He made his first mark in the industry in the early 1980s, when he and a colleague developed a system that allowed computers to communicate with printers and other devices. Every time you print something, you can thank Dean.

In all, Dean holds 20 patents, and was honored as one of the "50 Most Important African Americans in Technology" by the California African-American Museum in 2000. Dean wants to help increase awareness of the contributions of black engineers to both the engineering industry and the African-American community.

View Images

Mark E. Dean holds an IBM chip. He is one of the top engineering minds at the International Business Machines (IBM) Corp.

Before her 30th birthday, Mae C. Jemison had received two undergraduate degrees and a medical degree, served two years as a Peace Corps medical officer in West Africa, and was selected to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's astronaut training program. Her eight-day space flight aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992 established Jemison as the United States' first female African-American space traveler.

View Images

Mae C. Jemison's eight-day space flight aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992 established her as the United States' first female African American space traveler.

Percy L. Julian is known as the "soybean chemist," for his extraordinary success in developing innovative drugs and industrial chemicals from natural soya products. The firefighting solution he devised, known as “bean soup,” helped save the lives of thousands of sailors and naval airmen during World War II. His discoveries earned him more than 130 chemical patents and many professional awards.

His spirit lives on in dozens of lifesaving discoveries, as well as in the halls of Percy L. Julian Junior High School in Oak Park, Illinois. Julian was quoted as saying, "I have had one goal in my life, that of playing some role in making life a little easier for the persons who come after me."

View Images
Percy L. Julian is known as the "soybean chemist," for developing drugs and industrial chemicals from natural soya products.

Sarah Breedlove Walker was an inventor and businesswoman, and became one of the largest employers of African-American women of her time.

Often know as Madame C.J. Walker, she manufactured beauty products for other African-American women using formulas she developed after working for a pharmacist who taught her chemistry. Her popular hair-softening cream and shampoo helped heal dry skin and other itchy annoyances that were common in the early 1900s because indoor plumbing wasn’t widely available.

Walker’s company hired and trained thousands of black women to sell her hair-care products in shops, by mail, and door-to-door. This helped many become more independent during a time when job opportunities for women were limited.

View Images
Sarah Breedlove Walker, better known as Madame C. J. Walker, created a cosmetic empire by inventing a system of hair straightening.