HISTORY: LETS Celebrate Black Women Scientists: In our continuing coverage celebrating Black History Month, discover some of the lesser-known African-American women scientists who have made groundbreaking impacts in their respective fields.
NASA’s “human computers” Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan made their way into our hearts via the blockbuster film Hidden Figures, but there are so many other fantastic black women scientists that deserve the spotlight. To celebrate Black History Month, here are a few more amazing women who have carved out their own place in science.
Alice Ball (Chemist)
Alice Augusta Ball was born on July 24, 1892 in Seattle, Washington to Laura, a photographer, and James P. Ball, Jr., a lawyer. Ball earned undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry (1912) and pharmacy (1914) from the University of Washington. In 1915, Ball became the very first African American and the very first woman to graduate with a M.S. degree in chemistry from the College of Hawaii (now known as the University of Hawaii). She was also the very first woman chemistry instructor at the same institution.
Ball worked extensively in the laboratory to develop a successful treatment for those suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Her research led her to create the first injectable treatment using oil from the chaulmoogra tree, which up until then, was only a moderately successful topical agent that was used to treat lesprosy in Chinese and Indian medicine. Ball’s scientific rigor resulted in a highly successful method to alleviate leprosy symptoms, later known as the “Ball Method,” that was used on thousands of infected individuals for over 30 years until sulfone drugs were introduced. Tragically, however, Ball died on December 31, 1916 at the young age of 24 after complications resulting from inhaling chlorine gas in a lab accident. During her brief lifetime, she did not get to see the full impact of her discovery.
Also, it was not until six years after her death, in 1922, that Ball got the proper credit she deserved. Up until that point, the president of the College of Hawaii, Dr. Arthur Dean, had taken full credit for Ball’s work. Unfortunately, it was commonplace for men to take the credit of women’s discoveries and Ball fell victim to this practice (learn about three more women scientists whose discoveries were credited to men). She was also all but forgotten from scientific history for more than 80 years. Then, in 2000, the University of Hawaii-Manoa honored Ball by placing a bronze plaque in front of a chaulmoogra tree on campus and former Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii, Mazie Hirono, declared February 29 “Alice Ball Day.” In 2007, the University of Hawaii posthumously awarded her with the Regents’ Medal of Distinction.
Mamie Phipps Clark (Social Psychologist)
Mamie was born on April 18, 1917 in Hot Spring, Arkansas to Harold H. Phipps, a physician, and Katy Florence Phipps, a homemaker. She received several scholarship opportunities and chose to attend Howard University in 1934 as a math major minoring in physics. There she met Kenneth Bancroft Clark, a master’s student in psychology, who later became her husband and who convinced her to pursue psychology due to her interests in child development. In 1938, Clark graduated magna cum laude from Howard University and went on to pursue her master’s in psychology there and later, her PhD from Columbia University. In 1943, Clark became the first black woman to earn a psychology doctorate from Columbia.
Clark’s research focused on defining race consciousness among young children. Her now infamous “Dolls Test” provided scientific evidence that was influential in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In this test, over 250 black children ages 3-7, about half who attended segregated schools in the South (Arkansas) and about half who attended racially mixed schools in the northeast (Massachusetts), were asked to provide their preferences for dolls (brown skin with black hair or white skin with yellow hair). Their findings from the “Dolls Test” showed that the majority of black children wanted to play with the white doll (67%), indicated that the white doll was the “nice” doll (59%), indicated that the brown doll looked “bad” (59%), and chose the white doll as having the “nice color” (60%). Black children from the racially mixed northern schools felt more outward turmoil about the racial injustices this experiment revealed than those in the segregated Southern schools who felt more internalized passivity about their inferior racial status. Clark and her research team concluded that racial integration in schools was ideal in securing healthy child development.
Clark went on to work as a counselor at the Riverdale Home for Children in New York. In 1946, Clark opened The Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem which was one of the first agencies to provide comprehensive psychological services and educational programs to children of color living in poverty. Clark also worked with the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited project, the national Head Start program, and numerous other educational and philanthropic institutions. Clark died from cancer at the age of 65 on August 11, 1983.
Joycelyn Elders, M.D. (Former U.S. Surgeon General)
Minnie Lee Jones was born on August 13, 1933 in Schaal, Arkansas. She was the daughter of sharecroppers, Haller Reed and Curtis Jones and the eldest of eight children. The family lived in a three-room cabin without plumbing and electricity. Despite living in poverty and attending racially segregated schools miles from her home, Minnie graduated as valedictorian of her class. She changed her name to Minnie Joycelyn Lee in college and for the most part, stopped using the name “Minnie,” which was her grandmother’s name. In 1952, Joycelyn received a B.S. in Biology from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, becoming the first in her family to attend college. She briefly worked as a nurse’s aide at a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee and then joined the U.S. Army’s Women’s Medical Specialist Corps in 1953. Joycelyn married Oliver Elders in 1960 while attending the University of Arkansas Medical School with assistance from the G.I. Bill where she obtained her M.D. in 1960 and M.S. in Biochemistry in 1967. In 1978 Elders became the first person in the state of Arkansas to receive board certification as a pediatric endocrinologist. Elders worked at the University of Arkansas as an assistant, associate, and full professor of pediatrics from the 1960s to 1987 and later returned as a professor emerita.
In 1987, then-governor Bill Clinton appointed Elders as Director of the Arkansas Department of Health, making her the first African-American woman to hold this position. During her time in office, she successfully reduced teen pregnancy, expanded the availability of HIV services, and worked hard to promote sex education. In 1992, she was elected President of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers. In 1993, then-president Bill Clinton appointed her as the United States Surgeon General, making her the first African American and the second woman (following Antonia Novello) to hold the position. Her controversial opinions about sexual health, including her U.N. conference statements regarding masturbation, caused great controversy, and led to her forced resignation in December 1994.
Elders told her life story in the autobiography, From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America (1997). She is currently a professor emerita of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and participates in numerous public speaking events promoting the legalization of marijuana and improvements to sexual education.
Celebrating Black Women Scientists
Beyond these fantastically exceptional women, there are so many more. There is Rebecca Lee Crumpler who was the first African-American woman in the United States to earn a Doctorate of Medicine in 1864. There is Marie Maynard Daly, who became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in chemistry in the United States in 1947. There’s also Patricia Bath, the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first African-American female doctor to receive a medical patent. Of course no list would be complete without astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first African-American woman in space in 1992. And last but not least, molecular biologist Mary Styles Harris is worthy of acknowledgment, having raised greater awareness for medical issues including sickle-cell anemia and breast cancer. These women and so many more have and will continue to secure a strong place in history for their contributions to science.