Early African-American women in science & math

2010 March 24
Spelman graduate Ella Tyree did animal research "to determine the effects of radiation on humans." She managed the lab-animal farm for Argonne National Laboratories before being promoted to a research position.

Spelman graduate Ella Tyree worked near Chicago, where she did animal research "to determine the effects of radiation on humans." She managed the lab-animal farm for Argonne National Laboratories before being promoted to a research position. Source: "Atom Scientists'', Ebony, September 1949, 26.

In honor of Ada Lovelace Day 2010, I thought I’d post some images of African-American women who worked as scientists and mathematicians in the 1940s and 1950s. I was inspired by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s post on black women in physics and astronomy and by Spellbound’s post on portraits of women scientists.

These are from my master’s project, “‘In Los Alamos, I feel like I’m a real citizen’: Black atomic scientists, education, and citizenship, 1945-1960.” It started as an experiment; I was interested in the history of science and technology, and I decided to look first in the African-American newspapers of the Cold War to see what they might have to say.

My research taught me a lot about the ways that gender ideologies and racially-segregated education affected African-Americans’ ability to study science before World War II. For the few Black men and women who did get a university education in the sciences, career opportunities were limited– teaching and medicine were almost the only options. The one exception was for scientists who lived on the south side of Chicago, where the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Lab (“Met Lab”) did some of the atomic research which contributed to the Manhattan Project. Most of the scientists of color who worked at the Met Lab were men; they included Ernest Wilkins, brother of NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before he was 18.

Lawrence was a Tuskegee graduate and the widow of a military pilot. When this picture was taken, she had been working at the Met Lab for 4 years; during that time, she had been promoted from a technician to “junior biochemist.” Source: "Atom Scientists'', Ebony, September 1949, 26.

Blanche Lawrence was a Tuskegee graduate and the widow of a military pilot. When this picture was taken, she had been working at Argonne for 4 years; during that time, she had been promoted from a technician to “junior biochemist.” Source: "Atom Scientists'', Ebony, September 1949, 26.

After the end of the war, some African-American women worked as at the Argonne National Laboratories south of Chicago and as “computers”– clerical workers who did mathematical calculations by hand– in other scientific and technical projects in the North. The kinds of work they did usually gets referred to as “clerical” or “technical” work rather than research science, a topic I discuss more in the paper.

These photos were published in Ebony, which generally tried to put an optimistic spin on African-American achievement– particularly in the professions. We can’t take the magazine’s statements about these women’s work at face value, but without oral history research or other sources to uncover their lives, it’s hard to know more.

If you’re interested in the history of African-Americans in Chicago, take a look at the Mapping the Stacks project, which is working to preserve archival collections that will be useful for researchers. They’ve got some really great materials.

This woman worked as a "computer"— a kind of mathematician— at an aircraft in a Buffalo, New York, aircraft firm.

Mamie Johnson worked as a "computer"— a kind of mathematician— at an aircraft firm in Buffalo, New York. Source: ''More Than 200 Negroes Hold Key Scientific Jobs in Industry,'' Ebony, September 1950, 15.

Genevieve Dixon worked as a mathematical "computer" for a Buffalo, New York, aircraft company.

Genevieve Dixon worked as a mathematical "computer" for a Buffalo, New York, aircraft company, possibly the same one which employed Mamie Johnson. Source: ''More Than 200 Negroes Hold Key Scientific Jobs in Industry,'' Ebony, September 1950, 15.

7 Responses
  1. June 12, 2010

    While not African- American my Great Grandmother Mary Elizabeth Owens of Cincinnati was a serious scientist who married my Great Grandfather Dr. Samuel Cox Hooker.

    She wanted to further her science education in the United States but was not able to do so since she was a woman. The story my family tells was she attempted to study Royal College of Science at South Kensington but was turned down because of her gender. She then sent back the same information but used the name Mr. Owens and then she was accepted.

    My great grandmother was known to work with my Great Grandfather in the lab they had created in their home.

    In 1887 Hooker married Mary Elizabeth Owensof Cincinnati, whom he first met in the laboratories of the Royal College of Science at South Kensington where they were
    fellow students.
    If interested please check out this Obit. Our family has extensive information about the Hooker Family.

    http://www.rsc.org/delivery/_ArticleLinking/DisplayArticleForFree.cfm?doi=JR9360000539&JournalCode=JR

    1864-1935 Samuel Cox Hooker

    • Joy Bell permalink
      August 13, 2011

      I have just discovered that my 1st cousin 4 x removed Samuel Cox Hooker was a great scientist and hobbyist magician. I would love to know more about the family. My maternal grandfather’s mother was Ada Lavinia Hooker born in New Zealand in 1881, daughter of Stephen Hooker and Lucy Ann Coldicutt.
      Regards
      Joy Bell
      New Zealand

      • August 23, 2011

        Look up Dr Samuel Cox Hooker in the Lowry Geneolgy on Ancestry.com

    • Dean Vogel permalink
      August 23, 2011

      I am looking for imformation about Mary Elizabeth Owens an Dr SC Hooker as my Granddaughter is his ggggranddaughter of the Mrs Owens and Dr Hooker.

  2. June 18, 2010

    These reminded me of the photo of mathematician Melba Roy, who headed a team of “computers” at Goddard Space Flight Center in the early 1960s:
    http://www.nasaimages.org/luna/servlet/detail/nasaNAS~5~5~20079~125264:Female-Computer

    • June 18, 2010

      That’s great! Thanks for the link.

      (Interested readers can learn more about women as “computers” in Jennifer Light’s article “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture, July 1999.)

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