8 Pioneering Black Women in Science, Technology, and Medicine

Black scientists

 Wikimedia Commons

The contributions of Black women to society have often been overlooked. Yet the work these eight women performed in their careers — be it medicine, technology or personal hygiene products — helped many people and advanced the profile for Black women both in the U.S. and around the world:

Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson was the first black woman to earn a doctorate at MIT. (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for TIME)

Shirley Ann Jackson started classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1964, one of only a few Black students at the university, and she was the only one studying theoretical physics. After finishing her bachelor's degree, Jackson did her Ph.D. work at MIT as well. In 1973, she became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT and the second to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the U.S. Once out of the academy, Jackson worked at various laboratories, including AT&T; Bell Laboratories, FermiLab and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Her work mostly focused on subatomic particles.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton selected Jackson to serve as the chairperson of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, becoming the first woman to do so. In 2014, President Barack Obama tapped her to co-chair the President's Intelligence Review Board, a group that advises the president on "the quality and adequacy of intelligence collection, counterintelligence, and other intelligence activities." Obama also awarded her the National Medal of Science in 2014, the highest honor the government can bestow to a scientist or engineer.

Since 1999, she has served as the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Mary Eliza Mahoney

Mary Eliza Mahoney worked as a private nurse in the late 19th century. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Eliza Mahoney was born to freed slaves living in Boston in the spring of 1845. Once she grew into her teens, Mahoney decided she wanted to be a nurse. She took on a variety of roles over the course of 15 years at the New England Hospital for Women and Children, including janitor, washer and, most importantly, nurse's aide.

The hospital also operated a nursing school, and Mahoney was admitted to its professional graduate school at the age of 33. Forty-two students, including Mahoney, entered the program in 1878, and only four completed it in 1879. In doing so, Mahoney became the first Black woman to earn a professional nursing license in the U.S. In hopes of avoiding discrimination that was rampant in the public sphere, she became a private nurse, often to rich white families along the East Coast. In 1908, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses.

The American Nurses Association inducted Mahoney into its hall of fame in 1976, while the National Women's Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson began her career at NASA as a mathematical researcher. (Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Jackson started her career in math and science by teaching at a Black school in Calvert County, Maryland, after she received dual degrees in math and physical science in 1942. After working a few other jobs, including a receptionist and bookkeeper, Jackson was recruited in 1951 to work for National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the organization that would later be succeeded by NASA. Jackson worked as a research mathematician, or computer, at Langley Research Center's segregated West Area Computing Unit.

After two years in the computing pool, Jackson began work with engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki on the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000-horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Czarnecki encouraged Jackson to takes classes that would allow her to be promoted from mathematician to engineer, though this required Jackson to request permission from the city of Hampton, Virginia, to attend classes with white students. In 1958, Jackson completed the program and became NASA's first Black woman engineer.

Jackson did extensive work, particularly on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. She soon realized, however, that a glass ceiling would prevent her from receiving any promotions into management. Taking a demotion, she filled an open position as the Federal Women's Program manager for Langley. From here, she was able to influence the hiring and promotion of NASA's female employees.

Marian Croak

Marian Croak became the vice president of engineering at Google in 2014. (Photo: New America/Wikimedia Commons)

Before Marian Croak became Google's vice president of engineering, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1982, with an emphasis on social psychology and quantitative analysis. That same year, Croak joined AT&T's Bell Laboratory, where she made a sizable mark on the telecommunication landscape. She has more than 100 patents on Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technologies, the process by which we transmit sound as data over the internet. If you've ever voted for "American Idol" over the phone or donated to a charity the same way, you can also thank Croak for overseeing the development of that technology.

Alice Ball

Alice Ball achieved a number of firsts. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Born July 24, 1892, in Seattle, Alice Ball moved to Hawaii in 1902 with her family, hoping the warmer climates would help her ailing grandfather, but he died two years after their move. The family returned to Seattle, and Ball earned degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry and pharmacy from the University of Washington. Deciding to return to Hawaii for graduate work, Ball became the first African-American and the first woman to earn a master's degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii, which is now the University of Hawaii.

Within a year, she discovered a way to create a water-soluble solution from chaulmoogra oil. This oil was the main treatment for leprosy symptoms, but its taste often caused patients to vomit while taking it or they developed abscesses under the skin. Ball's discovery allowed for it to be injected with minimal side effects.

Ball died in 1916 at the age of 24, before she could publish the science behind her discovery. College president Arthur L. Dean continued the work, and Ball's method proved the best treatment for leprosy until the 1940s. Ball, however, was almost lost to history as Dean did not acknowledge her as the creator of the solution. Another professor name-checked her in a 1922 medical journal and her development of the injection. Today, a dedication plaque honoring Ball's contribution to medicine sits under the University of Hawaii's only chaulmoogra tree.

Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C. J. Walker developed her own line of cosmetic products. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Born Sarah Breedlove in December 1867 as one of six children to slaves-turned-sharecroppers, Madam C.J. Walker struggled before finding success. She was orphaned at the age of 7, escaped an abusive brother-in-law by marrying at the age of 14 and was a widow by 1887 with a 2-year-old daughter. Walker and her daughter moved to St. Louis in 1889, where her four brothers had set themselves up as barbers.

While there, Walker worked as a laundress and a cook, married and then divorced. The toll of her life was affecting her health and her finances, but in 1904, she began using Black businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone's "The Great Wonderful Hair Grower" product and joined the company's sales force. In 1906, still working for Malone, Walker moved to Denver, married Charles Joseph Walker and launched her own line of cosmetic products, some slightly tweaked from Malone's products, as Mrs. C.J. Walker, before adopting the name Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker developed her business by setting up mail-order lists and training local women to act as sales agents using the "Walker System." By the end of her life in 1919, her total net worth was around $1 million. When she died, she left two-thirds of future net profits to charity.

Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison is a doctor, an astronaut, a dancer and a businesswoman. (Photo: NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

Mae Jemison took a winding road to become the first Black woman to serve as an astronaut. In 1973, she entered Stanford University at 16 years old, an age she didn't realize until later was a bit young to be in college. She graduated in 1977 with dual degrees in chemical engineering and African-American studies. That same year, she enrolled at Cornell University's medical school, with a focus on international medicine. She volunteered in Thailand, studied in Kenya and graduated with her medical degree in 1981.

After a short stint in private practice, Jemison joined the Peace Corps in 1983 and worked in West Africa on a few different projects, including a hepatitis B vaccine. Later that year, she applied to be an astronaut, inspired by Nichelle Nichols' portrayal of Uhura on "Star Trek." In 1987, Jemison, along with 14 other people, was selected for the astronaut pool.

After her acceptance, Jemison worked on various launch-support tasks before launching into space for a weeklong stint aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1992. While aboard, she conducted multiple experiments, including observing how tadpoles developed in zero gravity. Jemison left NASA in 1993 and started her own company dedicated to developing science and technology for everyday life.

Alexa Canady

Alexa Canady was a patient-focused surgeon. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Alexa Canady's parents emphasized education to her as a young child, but she faced an uphill battle during her schooling in the 1960s and '70s. Despite demonstrating high intelligence in elementary school, Canady's scores were average. It turned out the teacher was swapping her grades with those of other students, giving Canady's scores to a white girl in the same class.

Canady received a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1971 from the University of Michigan. After receiving a scholarship for minority students in medicine, she entered the University of Michigan's medical school. Canady felt she and other women were often overlooked during classes, which just drove her to work harder. She received her medical degree in 1975.

Canady chose to specialize in neurosurgery, a difficult field to break into as a woman and especially as a Black woman. She studied hard and attended conferences and seminars in an effort to make herself known in the specialty. After finishing her residency in 1982, Canady became the first African-American and the first woman to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. By 1987, she was the chief of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan, a position she held until 2001. Canady developed a shunt to help treat hydrocephalus, or water on the brain.

Other notables

Joycelyn Elders, seen here in 2008, became the first black woman to serve as U.S. surgeon general in 1993. (Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

Joycelyn Elders. Elders served as the surgeon general of the United States from September 1993 to December 1994. She became known for her frank and, to some, controversial views on sex education and drug legalization.

Mary Kenner. Kenner developed an adjustable sanitary belt that held a moisture-proof pocket in place to reduce the odds of staining from menstrual blood. While there was initial interest in the product, once companies found out Kenner was Black, they immediately backed away from the product.

Marie Ban Brittan Brown. Along with her husband, Brown patented the forerunner to modern home security systems, complete with a closed-circuit monitor, remote-controlled locks and movable cameras.

Patricia Bath. An ophthalmologist, Bath was the first African-American to complete a residency in that field and the first Black female doctor to receive a patent for medical purposes. She developed the laserphaco, a device to improve the use of lasers in cataract surgeries.

Marie M. Daly. The first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the U.S., Daly conducted important research on cholesterol and sugars. She also made strides in improving the enrollment of minority students in medical and scientific fields.

Mamie Phipps Clark. Clark is best known for her work in the "doll studies," a series of exams that demonstrated how Black children internalize racism. She and her husband Kenneth were the first two African-Americans to earn doctorate degrees in psychology from Columbia University.

Lisa Gelobter. Gelobter was involved in the invention of numerous web-based video technologies, including Shockwave Flash, Joost, Hulu and Brightcove.