Today we are starting a new monthly blog devoted to women in science and their achievements. We start the ball rolling with American mathematician Katherine Johnson who recently celebrated her 100th birthday.
Katherine Johnson (nee Coleman) was born in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia in 1918 and showed incredible mathematics skills from a very early age. The Green Briar County school system did not offer public schooling past grade 8 for African-American children so her parents arranged for Katherine and her siblings to attend high school in Institute, West Virginia. She was admitted at the age of 10 and had graduated by the time she was 14. She enrolled into West Virginia State and took every math course offered in their curriculum. One of her mentors, W.W. Schieffelin Claytor (the third African-American to earn a PhD in mathematics), even added new math courses just for her. She graduated with honours in both mathematics and French in 1937 and took a job teaching at a public school in Virginia.
Johnson was selected along with two other African-American men to attend graduate school at West Virginia University when they had decided to integrate their graduate studies. At this time she was the first African-American woman to attend graduate school but left after the end of the first session to start her family. When her three daughters were older she returned to teaching. It wasn’t until 1952 that she had heard of openings at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory. Johnson and her family moved to Newport News to pursue the opportunity and she began working there in 1953. After only two weeks there, her temporary position became permanent when she was assigned a project in the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. She analyzed data from tests flights and investigated a plane crash caused by wake turbulence. At the end of this time, she lost her husband to cancer in 1956.
NACA disbanded in 1958 when it was superseded by NASA which changed from human computers to digital computers. From this time until her retirement in 1986, Johnson worked as an aerospace technologist. She moved to the Space Task Group and did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s first manned space flight mission Freedom 7 in May 1961. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission and plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures. In 1962, Johnson was called upon to participate in the work that she is probably best known for. NASA was using electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth with a communications network that linked tracking stations from around the world to IBM computers in Washington, Cape Canaveral, and Bermuda.
These computers were prone to hiccups and blackouts and the astronauts wanted the numbers run by a human computer. John Glenn, wary of putting his life in the proverbial hands of a digital computer, had asked NASA “to get the girl” (Johnson) to review the numbers. He stated, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” The flight was a success and the space race was on.
Johnson’s contributions and honours are numerous. She co-authored 26 scientific papers; received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2015; and in 2016 was included in the list of the top 100 influential women worldwide. The Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility was formally dedicated at NASA’s Langley Research Center; West Virginia State University has a STEM scholarship in her name; and in May 2018, she was awarded an honourary doctorate by the College of William and Mary. This is only a partial list of her accomplishments; Mattel has even made a Barbie in her likeness. (Not the same old Barbie. Now she can do the math and build her own darn dream house and launch it to Mars if she wants.) So when we are thinking of women in science, there is no other woman more deserving to start us off, than Katherine Johnson.
Photo Source: NASA