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Five Black Americans that Revolutionized Science

Part 1 in a 3-part series:

There have been numerous Black Americans that made, and continue to make, revolutionary contributions in science, literature, business, art, and medicine. Unfortunately, they are too often under-acknowledged by history. Had they been white, their achievements would certainly have been more widely recognized. The challenge with writing a blog such as this is that it is impossible to include all of the people that should be honored for their groundbreaking work and even harder to determine who to include. That said, in each of our blogs in this three-part series we will recognize five outstanding Black Americans who made tremendous contributions in their respective fields. The first in our series is devoted to those who have advanced the discipline of science through their achievements. But we are warning you now. No matter how successful you are, the profiles that follow are so inspirational that they are bound to make you feel like you have to accomplish even more!

Dr. Mae Jemison (Born October 17, 1956)

Dr. Mae Jemison graduated from high school at the age of 16, attended Stanford University, where she earned a BS in Chemical Engineering and then went on to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree from Cornell University. She also is well-versed in African and African-American studies, speaks fluent Russian, Japanese, and Swahili, and is trained in dance and choreography. And if that weren’t enough, she enrolled in graduate classes in engineering and became the first black female astronaut in NASA history! After working there for six years, where she also acted as the science specialist in a cooperative mission between the U.S. and Japan, she left NASA in 1993. Jemison is currently a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and is heavily involved in the 100 Year Starship Project. She has also been an ongoing advocate for science education and encouraging students of color to pursue careers in STEM fields. She participated with First Lady Michelle Obama in a forum for promising girls enrolled in Washington D.C. public schools and, most recently, she collaborated with Bayer and the National 4-H Council for the initiative called "Science Matters" aimed at encouraging young children to understand and pursue agricultural sciences. In addition, she has been involved in numerous other charities and foundations and started her own company, the Jemison Group, that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. And that is just a small portion of her accomplishments. We could devote an entire series of blogs to the life of Dr. Jemison alone!

George Edward Alcorn, Jr. (Born March 22, 1940)

George Edward Alcorn received a four-year academic scholarship to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science with honors in Physics. Simultaneously, he earned eight letters in basketball and football. He then earned a Master of Science in Nuclear Physics in 1963 from Howard University after only nine months of study. In his career as a physicist in the aerospace industry, Alcorn helped revolutionize astrophysics and semiconductor manufacturing and is credited with 20 inventions. However, his best-known innovation is for an x-ray spectrometer used to analyze distant galaxies and other deep-space phenomena. He also did extensive research into plasma etching, for which he received a patent in 1989. His invention is still used in the production of computer chips, also known as semiconductors.

James Edward Maceo West (Born February 10, 1931)

If you have ever given a speech or performed on stage with a microphone, you have used the invention of James Edward Maceo West. West received a Master’s degree in Physics from Temple University in 1957. He went to work at Bell Labs, where he participated in research on the way that humans hear. This led to his invention of the foil electret microphone in 1960 which used less power and was smaller than other microphones. His invention revolutionized the field of acoustics. Today this type of microphone is widely used in everything from phones to computers. In fact, West holds over 250 foreign and U.S. patents for the production and design of microphones and techniques for creating polymer foil electrets. After his distinguished 40-year career at Bell Laboratories, he received the organization's highest honor, being named a Bell Laboratories Fellow. West then joined the faculty of the Whiting School at John Hopkins University where he is currently a Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He also received an honorary doctorate from NJIT and has since received numerous other awards such as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering. He is also an inductee to the National Inventors Hall of Fame and an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering. For more info >

Patricia Bath (Born November 4, 1942)

After graduating from high school in only two years, Bath went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Hunter College and a medical degree from Howard University where she graduated with honors. She completed specialty training in ophthalmology and cornea transplant at both New York University and Columbia University. Bath later became the first African-American female surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first woman to be on the faculty of the UCLA Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1981, Bath began working on her most well-known invention: the Laserphaco Probe which harnessed laser technology to create a less painful and more precise treatment of cataracts. She became the first African-American female doctor to receive a patent for a medical purpose. (She also holds patents in Japan, Canada and Europe.) With her Laserphaco Probe, Bath was able to help restore the sight of individuals who had been blind for more than 30 years.

Patricia Bath was elected to the Hunter College Hall of Fame in 1988 and elected as a Howard University Pioneer in Academic Medicine in 1993. She is also the founder and first president of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness.

After retiring from the UCLA Medical Center, she was appointed to their honorary medical staff. Since then, she has been an advocate of telemedicine, the use of electronic communication to provide medical services to remote areas where health care is limited. She has held positions in telemedicine at Howard University and St. George's University in Grenada.

Percy Julian (1899-1975)

Percy Julian received his undergraduate degree from DePauw University where he majored in chemistry and was valedictorian of his class. He then attended Harvard University received his M.A. degree and was General Education Board Fellow at the University of Vienna, where he received his Ph.D. degree in 1931. Julian was a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants and in the large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones progesterone and testosterone which laid the foundation for the production of cortisone and other corticosteroids. He also developed the anti-glaucoma drug physostigmine. He received more than 130 patents and was one of the first African Americans to receive a doctorate in chemistry and the first to be inducted into the National Academy of Sciences. In 1953 he founded the Julian Laboratories, Inc., and the Julian Laboratories of Mexico which he later sold and then went on to direct the Julian Research Institute and Julian Associates.

In 2007, PBS produced a Nova documentary about his life called “Forgotten Genius” along with the release of an accompanying book.

In summary, we hope these profiles have inspired you to lead the way in your respective field and perhaps help to change the world in the process. Whether the accomplishments are big or small, each of us can make a difference in our own way. For further motivation, don’t miss our next two blogs where we will profile inspirational leaders from the fields of business and the arts.

To read about other scientists and inventors, go to:

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