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. 

After graduating he would spend a lifetime practicing gastroenterology at Freedman's Hospital in Washington D.C. and Cook County Hospital in Chicago until he retired in 1975. 

He was also heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the 1950's and devised his so-called "Berry Plan" for improving public health at the time.

Dr. James Edward Maceo West

Scientific discipline: Physics/Electronics/Acoustics

Date of birth: February 1931

Place of birth: Prince Edward County, Virginia

Date of death (if relevant): Still alive (87 years old at the time of writing)

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: James is best known for his work in developing the electroacoustic transducer electret microphone (ETEM). This device is currently found in around 90% of modern microphones, most telephones, old tape recorders, camcorders, and other devices such as hearing aids and baby monitors.

West has also been a prolific writer contributing to scientific papers and books.

Dr. West was appointed president-elect of the Acoustical Society of America. John later joined the National Academy of Engineering in 1998.

For his contributions to STEM, he was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999.

Brief biography: 

Benjamin Banneker

Scientific discipline: Astronomer

Date of birth: November 1731

Place of birth: Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland 

Date of death (if relevant):  October 1806

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Benjamin is best known for his series of highly successful astronomical almanacs that 'predicted' events such as solar eclipses, sunrises, and sunsets.

Many also contained predictions of the weather and seasonal changes and medical remedies and advice on planting crops. 

Brief biography: Born as a freeman he would go on to become one the United States most accomplished intellectuals. Interestingly his heritage included African Royalty.

In time he would self-teach himself many disciplines of STEM including his mastery of mathematics and astronomy.

He would later send a copy of his first almanac to Thomas Jefferson (U.S. Secretary of State) with other documents explaining his position on racial equality. 

Fittingly Benjamin died peacefully whilst stargazing through his telescope in a field near his home on the night of October 25th, 1806. He was 75 years old.

Patricia Era Bath

Scientific discipline:  Ophthalmologist

Date of birth: 1942

Place of birth: Harlem, New York City

Date of death (if relevant): Still alive (76 years old at the time of writing)

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Patricia is best-known as the inventor of the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment that she patented in 1986. She was also the first African American to ever complete a residency in Ophthalmology in 1973.

Patricia also became the first female faculty member at the Department of Opthalmology at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. She would also establish the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976. 

During her fellowship in Ophthalmology at Columbia University, she discovered that African Americans were more likely to suffer from blindness and significantly more likely to develop glaucoma than other patients. 

Brief biography: Born in Harlem in 1942, Patricia be encouraged by her 'working class' parents to pursue her interests in science. This interest was cemented by an early present of a Chemistry set by her parents. 

After graduating from University she would go on to lead a fruitful career in ophthalmology with the 'cherry on top' being her invention of the Laserphaco Probe - making her the first African American female medical professional to earn a medical patent.

George Washington Carver

Scientific discipline: Chemist and Botanist

Date of birth: 1864

Place of birth: Missouri

Date of death (if relevant): January 1943

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: George almost single-handily built the peanut industry in the United States. His research would help the impoverished farming industry of southeastern Alabama by educating them in crop rotation and plant fertilization.

He is, however, most famous for his work on peanuts that earned him the title of 'peanut man' for his introduction of the potential of it as a foodstuff. George also discovered the nutritional benefit of sweet potatoes. 

His discoveries earned him several patents and the 1923 Spingarn Medal. He was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Brief biography: George was born into slavery during the American Civil War. He would later earn his freedom, receive a Bachelor's degree in Agricultural Science in 1894 and a master's in 1896. 

George spent an extended period of his career at the Tuskegee Institute where he would make the majority of his scientific discoveries. 

Dr. 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: Elmo was the first African-American to receive a doctorate in Chemistry in the U.S. 

Elmo would spend a quarter of a century developing the undergraduate program at Fisk University and founded the first graduate Chemistry program at a black college. He also helped build the Chemistry department at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Brief biography: Elmo Brady was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1884. He would leave home at the age of 20 to enroll at the all-black college at Fisk University in Tennessee.

After graduating with a degree in Chemistry he took up a teaching position at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (Tuskegee University today). He would later earn his masters and Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois and he also became the first African-American to be admitted into Phi Lambda Upsilon.

He would become a highly regarded educator and would teach at no less than four distinguished black colleges. His 'labor of love' for teaching would inspire countless numbers of future chemists.

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

Scientific discipline: Theoretical Physicist

Date of birth: August 1946

Place of birth: Washington D.C. 

Date of death (if relevant): Still alive (72 years old)

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Dr. Jackson was the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from MIT in Theoretical Physics and the second to earn a doctorate in Physics in general.

Her main contributions to science revolved around advancements in telecommunications that helped lead to the direct development of technologies like the portable fax machine, touch-tone phones, and fiber optic cables, and many more. 

Brief biography: Shirley was very interested in science and mathematics as a child and would even conduct her own experiments (on honeybees) at a young age. 

She would later use her passion for science to earn a B.Sc., M.Sc., and Ph.D. in Physics. Post academia she began working at AT & T's Bell Laboratories conducting experiments and research into practical applications of theoretical physics. 

She would later head the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Clinton Administrations and became the 18th President of the  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).

Dr. Jackson has received many honors and distinctions and serves on the board of directors in many organizations.

Alice Augusta Ball

Scientific discipline: Pharmacist and Chemist

Date of birth: 1892

Place of birth:  Seattle, Washington 

Date of death (if relevant): December 1916

Their main contribution(s) to science and the world: Alice is best known for her successful treatment of those suffering from Hansen's Disease, aka leprosy. This would prove to be the world's first working treatment for this debilitating disease. 

Tragically she would die very young at the age of 23 and would never receive recognition for her achievements in her lifetime. 

Brief biography: Ball was born as the granddaughter of the, then, famed daguerreotypist James Presley Ball.  Her father was also a promising lawyer. 

Alice Ball graduated from the University of Washington with two degrees in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1912 and a pharmacy in 1914.

Alice would later earn her master's in Chemistry from the University of Hawaii in 1915 and would go on t become the first woman to teach Chemistry when she was 23 years old.

At this time she began experimenting with chaulmoogra oil to treat patients suffering from Hansen disease (leprosy). It would prove effective and worked tirelessly to develop a means of injecting oil. 

According to her obituary, she suffered complications resulting from inhaling chlorine gas during a class demonstration in Honolulu.

George Edward Alcorn Jr. 

Scientific discipline: Physics

Date of birth: March 1940