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23 Black Female Scientists Who Changed The Damn World

I got 99 problems but black women will cure all of them someday.

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Updated on

1. Alice Ball (1892-1916), a chemist who created the first effective treatment for leprosy when she was only 23.

University of Hawaii / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images / Via hawaii.edu

Okay so prior to Alice, people had known for hundreds of years that a potential treatment to leprosy existed in the form of something called Chaulmoogra oil. It was too thick to effectively circulate through the body, but Alice Ball, science prodigy and chemist extraordinaire, was the one who FINALLY figured how to turn it into a working treatment. It's thanks to her that a leprosy crisis was avoided in the early 1900s. Bless you, Alice.

2. Annie Easley (1933-2011), a rocket scientist who developed software for Centaur, one of NASA's most important high-energy rocket launchers.

NASA Science and Engineering Newsletter / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images / Via Women in Science

Stay with me for a second because this is actual rocket science. Centaur is a second-stage rocket launcher: the workhorse of the rocket world used to propel countless probes and satellites into space. It's been invaluable to NASA since its creation, first allowing the U.S. to catch up to the Soviet Union during the space race, and eventually propelling spacecrafts to land on the moon and fly by other planets in the solar system.

So yes: Annie Easley helped DO that. She also contributed energy research to power plants and electronic batteries, which enabled the creation of hybrid vehicles. Go ahead and thank Annie for those, too.

3. Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983), a social psychologist whose research on black children's self-image was instrumental in establishing the harm of segregated schools during Brown v. Board of Education.

Columbia University, courtesy of Psychology's Feminist Voices / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images

In the now-famous "doll test," Mamie and her research partner (her husband) presented children with a black doll and a white doll and asked them how they felt about each. It is largely due to their findings — that children preferred playing with the white doll over the black doll, affirming that segregation does negatively impact the self-image of black children — that schools were finally desegregated. The Clark team summoned forth the facts, data, and receipts to win a landmark case and give black children access to better education and sense of self-worth. Yes, Mamie Clark.

4. Mae Jemison (1956-present), a physician, engineer, AND astronaut who was the first black woman to travel to space.

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When they tell you shoot for the stars, look to Mae Jemison, because it wasn't enough for her to be a physician and problem-solving genius — she literally went ALL THE WAY TO SPACE, too.

However, she only took one trip because she felt she had more to contribute to the people on earth. Let that sink in for a second: she left NASA and her career as an astronaut because she wanted to give back more to us. Since leaving NASA, she's organized international science camps, taught at Dartmouth, and started a number of organizations including the Jemison Foundation, a group that promotes science literacy and education. THANK YOU, MAE.

5. Valerie Thomas (1943-present), a scientist who invented the Illusion Transmitter, a device that used concave mirrors to project 3D optical illusions.

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You read that right: an Illusion Transmitter, just like something straight out of Star Trek. Her crazy brilliant space device has been used in surgery, to develop television and video screens, and even by NASA. Yes, Valerie. 🙌🏿

6. Jane Wright (1919-2013), an oncologist who was instrumental in developing cancer treatments.

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Jane Wright did so much to establish safer cancer treatments. When she began her work, chemotherapy was largely experimental; she found less invasive ways to administer it and developed ways to test it on isolated cells instead of live patients or lab mice.

7. Marie M. Daly (1921-2003), a chemist whose research on the link between high cholesterol and clogged arteries was vital to understanding heart attacks.

Queens College Silhouette Yearbook / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images / Via chemheritage.org

And she didn't stop there — Marie also researched cancer and genetics, and she was the first black woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry. Go on, Marie.

8. Bessie Blount Griffen (1914-2009), a physical therapist and forensic scientist who invented a device that helped people who had lost limbs to feed themselves.

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While working with wounded soldiers during WWII, Bessie created a feeding tube that allowed people with amputations to be more self-sufficient. The American Veterans Administration didn't accept the patent, so Bessie ended up selling it to France's government instead.

Of course, Bessie didn't stop there. She also also published her notes on handwriting characteristics and found new ways to detect forged documents. Yes...she did a total career 180 from physical therapy to forensic science. Talk about a jack of all trades and master of ALL of them.

9. Jeanne Spurlock (1921-1999), a psychiatrist who was largely responsible for bringing awareness of the effects of poverty, racism, sexism on health to the medical community.

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Prior to Jeanne, the impact of discrimination and its accompanying stress factors were rarely explored or acknowledged in relationship to health. She also researched the impact of racism on childhood development and ways to approach therapy that addressed the needs of people of color. And Jeanne broke a ton of ground for black psychologists through her roles in academia and her publications.

10. Katherine Johnson (1918-present), a physicist and mathematician who calculated the trajectories for many NASA missions and was instrumental in launching the first American into space.

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You might also know her as the star of the movie Hidden Figures, and if you've seen it you already know that Katherine Johnson is a total math boss. Not only did she send a man to a moon (with numbers!), she also did the calculations for Project Apollo's Lunar Landing, and was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

11. Flemmie Pansy Kittrell (1904-1980), an internationally-renowned nutritionist who changed how we view child development.

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Flemmie was one of the first people to bring attention to the effects of home environment on early childhood development. She also traveled around the world to collaborate with nutritional scientists, even consulting Liberia's government on ways to address issues with malnutrition. Her recommendations completely reshaped their agricultural industries. Oh, and Flemmie was also the first black woman to earn a PhD in nutrition ever. You go, Flemmie.

12. Gloria Twine Chisum (1930-present), an experimental psychologist whose research led to protective goggles that automatically darken for pilots.

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Maybe you associate automatically-darkening eyewear with those less-than-fashion-friendly prescription glasses that tint in the sun and are beloved by dads everywhere, but for pilots, this advancement was very important. Pilots are susceptible to a loss of consciousness when they make sharp turns, and in the event of a nuclear explosion they can easily be blinded by bright flashes of light. It's thanks to Gloria that they have goggles that reduce some of those risks.

13. Ruth Winifred Howard (1900-1997), a psychologist who was the first person to publish a study on triplets from a range of different ages and ethnicities.

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Ruth was a trailblazer. Prior to her, studies were often conducted on twins, but rarely on triplets. She also researched the ways different ethnic groups studied and worked with one another, and was the first black woman to earn a doctorate in psychology.

14. Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924-2017), a biologist who worked to discover which compounds were the most damaging to cancer cells.

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Jewel researched ways to alter cell growth AND experimented with growing human tumor tissue outside of the human body to use for cancer treatment tests (instead of testing on living people). As if that wasn't enough, she also helped to form the National Science Foundation's Committee on Women and Minorities in Science.

15. Margaret James Strickland Collins (1922-1996), a field biologist who contributed over five decades of research to termite zoology.

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A sci-fi story by S.F. Light — about a man shrunk down to the size of an ant — inspired Margaret to pursue science. As a field biologist, she kicked down barriers left and right by traveling to Guyana to conduct research, teaching at colleges and universities, and even discovering a new species of termite. In her own words: “I’m a field scientist. When I started, field biology was not considered a women’s work. But gender is incidental if a scientist is good." 🙌🏿

16. Patricia Suzanne Cowings (1948-present), a research psychologist who developed trainings for NASA astronauts to minimize the effects of space motion sickness.

NASA / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images / Via nasa.gov

In space, where the slightest impairment can be deadly, something as incapacitating as motion sickness — which is very likely when you're, you know, traveling in a rocket — presents a real problem for astronauts. Thank goodness NASA had Patricia around to develop trainings that helped astronauts mitigate these issues. She also explored ways to extend these techniques to psychosomatic diseases and health issues.

17. Christine Concile Mann Darden (1942-present), an aerospace engineer who led NASA's Sonic Boom Group.

NASA / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images / Via nasa.gov

Christine wasn't just a member of NASA's Sonic Boom group, no. She led it. She ran it. She was the aerospace industry's #1 sonic boom Queen Bee.

After starting out as one of NASA's human computers, she rose through the ranks to develop programs that simulated sonic booms and methods for predicting and minimizing them. She was also instrumental in finding ways to lessen their more negative effects, like noise pollution and depleted ozone. Oh, and she's also published more than 50 pieces on sonic boom prediction and supersonic flow.

18. Betty Harris (1940-present), a chemist who patented a test that identifies explosives.

Los Alamos National Laboratory / Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images

Though she also worked in hazardous waste cleanup and contamination, Betty's main expertise was explosives. She's best known for patenting a field test that identifies small traces of explosive chemicals.

BUT! THAT'S NOT ALL! Betty also worked with the Girl Scouts to create a chemistry badge so young girls can be rewarded for their love of science. *Girl Scout salutes Betty*

19. Jessie Isabelle Price (1930-2015), a veterinary microbiologist who developed vaccinations to protect waterfowl from disease.

Let's take a second to appreciate just how pure this is: Jessie Isabelle Price decided to use her brilliant brain to save ducks. This was no small accomplishment — her treatment saved the duck industry an estimated $250,000 during a time when farmers were losing about 30 percent of their water fowl each year because of disease. Thank you, Jessie. 🐤

20. Gladys W. Royal (1926-2002), a biochemist who researched bone marrow transplants as a treatment for radiation.

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You want to talk about multifaceted? With her husband by her side, #TeamRoyal used funding from the Atomic Energy Commission to find ways to use bone marrow transplants as a treatment for radiation poisoning. Gladys then completely shifted gears and began working as a biochemist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Service Program, assessing their nutrition projects. Go on, Gladys.

21. Shirley Ann Jackson (1946-present), a prominent theoretical physicist who served as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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The chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission monitors the byproduct of nuclear reactors, so it's a pretty big deal. Shirley also served on a bunch of advisory boards for international security and energy, AND she was the first black woman to get a Ph.D from MIT. ✊🏾

22. Joan Murrell Owens (1933-2011), a marine biologist who completely redefined how button corals (a large, solitary coral) are classified.

Anjali Patel / BuzzFeed / Getty Images

And she was one of the first black women to contribute to the field of marine biology. And she discovered several new species of coral, and so very graciously named one after her husband. Go Joan.

23. Patricia Bath (1942-present), who invented the Laserphaco Probe, a device that improved treatment for cataract patients.

Anjali Patel / Jemal Countess / Getty Images

And she didn't stop there. Patricia has not one, not two, but four patents related to cataract treatment that are used internationally. It's thanks to her that the removal of cataracts is safer and more painless. She also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, a non-profit organization that helps to treat preventable blindness. So many people around the world owe their vision to Patricia and her inventions. 🙌🏿

Unless otherwise noted, all stories are sourced from Black Women Scientists In The United States by Wini Warren.

CORRECTION

Ruth Winifred Howard was a psychologist who published a study on triplets. An earlier version of this post misstated her name. H/T to @FeministVoices for pointing this out!

CORRECTION

Bessie Blount Griffen was born in 1914. An earlier version of this post misstated the year. H/T to @Flickanelde for pointing this out!

CORRECTION

Jessie Isabelle Price died in 2015. An earlier version of this post incorrectly said she was still alive and also misspelled her surname.

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