Black History Month: Scientists of color contribute much to their fields

Most modern science textbooks highlight the pivotal and groundbreaking work of scientists like Newton, Darwin, and Boyle: Newton’s discoveries on gravity, Darwin’s research on genetics, Boyle’s experimentation with gases.

These accomplishments aren’t to be trivialized; indeed, they make up much of today’s science curriculum, both at McNicholas and across the country and world.

However, these scientists, inventors, and scholars do not represent the entire gamut of the world’s best thinkers. Due to historical repression and modern-day ignorance, it is easy to forget the contributions of African-Americans to the scientific community.

Probably among the most well-known of the oft-ignored scientists of color is George Washington Carver. 

A botanist and former slave, Carver was born near the end of the Civil War (exact birthdates are unknown for many born into slavery).

Carver was tapped by Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute to run its agricultural program. He worked as a teacher and researcher, investing considerable time into his work with peanuts and sweet potatoes. He derived hundreds of household products from these seemingly simple plants. Carver’s inventions helped to increase crop diversity in southern cotton farms. Learn more about George Washington Carver.

Scientist Alice Ball is often overlooked among medical researchers and innovators. Her work involved chemical research and development of medicine. Most notably, she discovered a method by which leprosy could be treated.

This treatment was a result of her research with chaulmoogra oil, a tree oil that was shown to have medicinal properties. Ball created an ester ethyl (water- and bloodstream-soluble) variant of the oil that could be used to treat leprosy with minimal side effects. Read more of Alice Ball’s story.

Another historical scientist of color is Walter Lincoln Hawkins. After attending the prestigious, all-black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. in the late 1920s, he completed multiple degrees from universities including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Howard University, and McGill University.

Hawkins worked at Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T. His claim to fame was a brand-new polymer to protect and coat telecommunications cables. His development gave the cables more longevity and durability, which quite literally made today’s vast phone network possible. Hawkins’s polymer, so ubiquitous that it’s known simply as “plastic cable sheath,” is still used in today’s fiber-optic networks. Discover more about Walter Lincoln Hawkins.

This list only scratches the surface of the contributions of scientists of color. Check out a list of ten notable scientists of color on the PBS website to learn more about these scientists and others. And always remember that a diverse array of voices leads to a beautiful chorus of knowledge.


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