The Lowdown Hub

Faces behind White Coats, Black Scientists, Connecting Past and Present Forms of Racism in Science.

Scientists study often consider their work and their institutions unbiased. After all, scientists rely on a rigorous set of experiments to test hypotheses and arrive at conclusions that inform what the rest of us know to be facts in the world.

The egregious violence used against Black people by police in the U.S. is paralleled in science, too. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study observed untreated syphilis in nearly 600 Black men for 40 years to develop a vaccine for the virus. The majority of the Black men were left untreated, creating hardships for multiple generations.

And yet history demonstrates how scientific practices have been used to justify systemic racism. Further, the exclusion of Black scientists from institutions, the failure to recognize the contributions of Black scientists, and the lack of culturally relevant scientific curricula perpetuate the underrepresentation of Black people and their perspectives in science.

Dr. Dorothy Vaughan

Scientific discipline: Mathematician and Computer Scientist

Date of birth: September 1910

Place of birth: Morgantown, West Virginia

Date of death (if relevant): November 2008

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Dorothy is best known for her work as a 'Human Computer' at NACA and then NASA. 

She would make ground-breaking advancements in the proliferation of FORTRAN and made significant contributions to the U.S. Space Program. 

Brief biography:  Dorothy graduated from Beechurst High School in 1925. She would later earn her B.A. in Mathematics and then began working as a school teacher to help her family through the great depression.

After getting married and bearing children, Dorothy would simultaneously rear her children and lead a highly successful career with NACA, later NASA. She would be a lifelong advocate for racial and female equality and a committed Methodist Christian.

She would retire at the age of 60 in 1971.

Harold Amos

Scientific discipline: Professor and Microbiologist

Date of birth: 1918

Place of birth: Pennsauken, New Jersey

Date of death (if relevant): 2003

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Harold Amos was the first African American Microbiologist and the first to become the department chair of Harvard Medical School. 

Harold made various high profile discoveries in his discipline including the finding of the 5-methylcytosine in the E. coli RNA and spearheading research into the use of bacterial RNA to program the synthesis of higher cell proteins, insulin, etc. 

Harold was a well-respected educator too and often cited teaching as one of his many passions. he would receive many awards throughout his career including the first Charles Drew World Medical Prize from Harvard University in 1989, an Honoris Causa doctoral degree from Harvard University in 1996, the Centennial Medal of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2000, and the National Academy of Science’ highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal in 1995.

Brief biography: Harold was born in Pennsauken, New Jersey in 1918. His parents had close connections with the Quakers who would often gift books to the Amos family - one of which was the biography of Louis Pasteur. 

This would spark an interest that would lead to a lifetime fascination into the microscopic world. Harold would serve in France during the Second World War. 

After returning home he began his studies into the biological and medical sciences in 1946. Once he'd collected various degrees and a Ph.D. he returned to France under a scholarship to the Pasteur Institute. 

He then returned to the U.S. to begin a lifelong career at Harvard University - where he would study and teach for the next 50 years. 

St. Elmo Brady

Scientific discipline: Chemist

Date of birth: 1884

Place of birth: Kentucky, Alabama

Date of death (if relevant): 1966

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world:

The idea that Black people’s bodies are expendable is what led to the implementation of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the first place and has not escaped the minds of scientists today. For example, two French scientists casually suggested that experimentation to determine the effectiveness of a tuberculosis vaccine against Covid-19 should take place in Africa. According to one of the researchers:

“If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we be doing this study in Africa, where there are no masks, no treatments, no resuscitation? A bit like as it is done elsewhere for some studies on AIDS. In prostitutes, we try things because we know that they are highly exposed and that they do not protect themselves.”

Their casual suggestion to experiment with populations on the African continent demonstrates how Black people have and continue to be violated by scientific studies.

Valerie Thomas

Scientific discipline: Chemist, Physicist, and Computer Scientist

Date of birth: 1943

Place of birth: Maryland

Date of death (if relevant): Still alive (Aged 75 at the time of writing)

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Valerie is a highly accomplished and talented African-American scientist and inventor. She is best known as the inventor of the Illusion Transmitter that has proved highly influential for NASA research.

Valerie also helped develop the image-processing systems for LANDSAT (the first satellite to send images from space). 

Her invention would be widely adopted by NASA and is still used in the production of televisions and video screens. She held various senior roles at NASA including the Project Manager of the Space Physics Analysis Network and Associate Data Operations Officer.

Brief biography: Valerie was born in 1943 and after graduating with a degree in Chemistry she would begin a lifelong career working at NASA.

After her many accomplishments at NASA, she finally retired from NASA in 1995. 

For her contributions to science, she would earn various NASA awards including the Goddard Space Flight Center Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. 

Dr. Betty Wright Harris

Scientific discipline: Chemist

Date of birth: July 1940

Place of birth: Louisiana

Date of death (if relevant): Still alive (78 years old at the time of writing)

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world:

Date of death (if relevant): Still alive (78 years old at the time of writing)

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Dr. Betty Wright is best known for her development and invention of the TATB spot test for identifying explosives in the field. She successfully patented her invention which has been widely adopted by military and civil institutions the world over.

Brief biography: Dr. Betty Wright Harris was one of twelve children born to her parents in rural Louisiana in the 1940's. Her parents would instill in her the need for hard work and the power of education to better oneself.

She would take her parents lessons to heart and later earned her B.Sc. in Chemistry (minor mathematics) from Southern University in 1961. Betty later pursued her Master's in Chemistry from Atlanta University in 1963 and finally completed a Ph.D. in Chemistry in 1973 from the University of New Mexico. 

Here she worked as a research chemist in various fields including explosives and nuclear weapons., hazardous waste treatment, and environmental remediation. It was here then she developed her TATB test.

She would later retire from LANL in 2002, join the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Classification and became a member of the American Chemical Society and American Society for the Advancements of Science

Dr. Leonidas Harry Berry

Scientific discipline: Physician/Medical Sciences

Date of birth: July 1902

Place of birth: Woodsdale, North Carolina

Date of death (if relevant): 1995

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Dr. Berry is best known for his work biopsy especially his development of a new sampling device called the Elder-Berry biopsy gastroscope that was invented in 1955.

He was also able to determine that alcoholism damaged the liver rather than the stomach (as was the popular belief at the time). 

Brief biography: Leonidas was born as the descendant of a self-liberated African-American who fought the U.S. Civil War for the Union Army. 

He would later earn various bachelor's and master's medical degrees from Wilberforce University, The University of Chicago, Rush Medical College and the University of Illinois Medical School.