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Black History Month: 5 Black Scientists Who Changed the World

5 black scientists for black history month

October is Black History Month - an annual event that celebrates the achievements of black people and acknowledges their influence over the course of history.

In honour of this, we'd like to take a look at the works of five black scientists who carved out their own paths within the science industry and changed the world as we know it.

1. Charles Henry Turner

A pioneer in animal cognition studies, and the first black scientist to be published in Science.

Turner was one of the first African Americans to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago, and went on to be the first black scientist published in Science - an extremely prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

By the time he achieved his doctorate, Turner had already published over 30 scientific papers, contributing enormously to the field of animal behaviour. At the time, it was believed that animals were not capable of complex cognition, but Turner's findings overruled this misconception.

Turner was the first to prove that insects have the capacity to hear, and evidenced how bees use olfactory and visual cues to find nectar. His findings contributed to our understanding of the animal kingdom and the ways in which animals communicate.

Unfortunately, his research was forgotten by some, resulting in white scientists 're-discovering' his findings despite Turner being the reason they were uncovered in the first place.


2. Alice Ball

Developed the first effective treatment for leprosy, a bacterial infection that has affected humans for thousands of years.

Alice Ball only lived to the young age of 24, but in her short lifetime, she developed the 'Ball Method' - the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century. She never got to see the full impact of her discovery, and it was not until years after her death that she got the credit she always deserved.

Ball became the first African American, and the first woman, to graduate with a masters degree in chemistry. Her ongoing research led her to create the first injectable treatment using oil from the chaulmoogra tree. She then isolated the oil into fatty acid components of different molecular weights, allowing her to manipulate the oil into the form of a water-soluble injection.

It was a highly successful method, and it saved many lives.


3. Mae Carol Jemison

The first African American woman to travel in space.

When Mae Carol Jemison went into orbit on the Space Shuttle Endeavour as a mission specialist on 12th September 1992, she became the first African American woman to travel in space. In addition to serving as a Medical Officer in the Peace Corps, and being a trained medical doctor, she currently runs BioSentient Corp - a medical technology company.

Incredibly, Jemison began studying chemical engineering at Stanford University at the young age of 16. She faced many roadblocks while pursuing her scientific aspirations; due to this, she later founded The Earth We Share (TEWS), an international science camp that promotes the importance of accessible science literacy for all.


4. Walter Lincoln Hawkins

The pioneer of polymer chemistry who invented a plastic coating that contributed to the expansion of telephone services around the world.

Hawkins is best known for his pioneering work in the field of polymer chemistry. He developed the plastic coating for telephone wires that made universal telephone service possible. The new material was lightweight, and less expensive than the lead sheathing used at the time.

He ensured that this plastic could withstand fluctuations in weather and last up to 70 years. His invention saved billions of dollars, and continues to be used today around the globe.


5. Gladys West

Known for major contributions to what we now know as GPS (the Global Positioning System).

Gladys West is a pioneer in navigation and communication applications, and has contributed greatly to the way we navigate and understand the Earth. After earning a full scholarship to the Virginia State College and receiving a masters in mathematics, she was hired by the US Naval Surface Warfare Centre, becoming the second black woman ever to be hired at the facility.

After showcasing her analytical and programming skills, West was named project manager for the Seasat Radar Altimetry Project - the first satellite to monitor the oceans. She then went on to create a detailed mathematical model of the Earth's shape, accounting for gravitational and tidal forces.

Her work on these satellite geodesy models became the foundation of what we now know as GPS, the Global Positioning System.

These are just some of the many influential black scientists whose inspirational efforts have changed the world as we know it. We believe that there is a place for everybody within the science community, and Black History Month allows us to celebrate the beauty of diversity and recognise the achievements of black scientists past and present.

If you're interested in pursuing a scientific career, we at HRS are dedicated to helping you find your dream role. Click the button below to reach out to one of our recruitment specialists today!

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