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Black Women Scientists in the United States

Model (Young black female; Image courtesy of Wix)

"Black Women Scientists in the United States," a book by Wini Warren highlights the stories of several outstanding scientists and teachers.

The stories of outstanding black female scientists have largely been untold. Moreover, the dearth of black faculty at four-year institutions, 1.3% of full professors according to recent studies (Kulis et al., 2000), adds to the need to highlight the careers of role models. One of the books filling this void is Black Women Scientists in the United States (1999) by Wini Warren. The book is an expansion of the author's doctoral dissertation completed in 1997 at Indiana University (Wini Mary Edwina Warren, Hearts and Minds: Black Women Scientists in the United States, 1900-1960, Department of History and Philosophy of Science).

The author collected profiles of 104 women spanning careers from the natural sciences to physics and engineering. Several women achieved a "first" in their areas of expertise, for example, Mae Jemison, an astronaut, Marie Maynard Daly, the first black woman awarded a Ph.D. in chemistry, and Ruth Ella Moore, the first black woman awarded a degree in microbiology. Commitment to science and mentorship were integral to those successes, but the joys were often overshadowed by racial and sexist issues. Jewel Plummer Cobb, President Emeritus of California State University at Fullerton who is noted for her work on the skin pigment, melanin, mentioned that black students were not allowed into dormitories at the University of Michigan during her undergraduate days (1940s). Although the political landscape has changed, it is striking that some black female students today still echo feelings of social and professional isolation. Profiles of pathbreakers like Cobb and others underscore the importance of mentors/teachers.

Angie Turner King, a chemist and mathematician, represents one of those teachers that educated a generation of black scientists. One of her stars, Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, published studies that would form the theoretical framework for launching, tracking, and returning vehicles in space (Skopinski T.H. and Johnson, 1962). Angie King's dedicated college teaching career started with the instruction to "get a chemistry lab fixed up, so that the students would know what a real laboratory was like." The number of successful black scientists trained by her at West Virginia State college reveals that she did much more than "simply show them the lab."

Jessie Isabelle Price, born in 1930 and raised in a single-parent home in Montrose, Pennsylvania, opted for studies in veterinary microbiology at Cornell University in Ithaca. She became a recognized authority on avian diseases following publication of her dissertation work and managed to culture the previously unculturable pathogen, Pasteurella anatipestifer. This bacterium had been responsible for the deaths of 30% of edible waterfowl in eastern Long Island at the time. Her meticulous surgical and scientific skills also revealed other infectious agents responsible for duck deaths, Pasteurella multocida, E. coli, and duck hepatitis. She developed Pasteurella vaccines that were used commercially in the Midwest and in Canada. Price also conducted studies on Mycobacterium avium in order to understand why avian tuberculosis is so prevalent in the endangered species, whooping cranes. Her most recent work involved the development of mutant oral and other Pasteurella multocida vaccines.

Together with the significant accomplishments of the other women, these stories highlight the different paths that scientists have taken as spontaneous choices or to overcome obstacles. Apart from redressing an imbalance in recorded history, this book adds to the discussion of factors hindering and supporting the career growth of female scientists in the United States.

For more stories about unsung/famous female scientists and engineers, check out my book on Amazon:

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