Obviously, I can’t cover everything that black scientists have contributed to science. I mean, between Lonnie Johnson inventing the Super Soaker (it is as awesome as it sounds) and Patricia Bath’s ground-breaking work in ophthalmology; between Benjamin Bradley developing a steam engine and selling it to buy his own freedom and Lewis Latimer’s work in Thomas Edison’s lab, well, there are just too many people to recognize and too much ground to cover. Here I’ll try to tell the tale of five geniuses who should be taught in basically every science class ever.
1. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1858-1931) – A pioneer in cardiac surgery, he was the first man ever to open up a patient’s chest cavity and not have that patient die from infection. He was the first person to perform a successful open heart surgery. He opened the first nursing school for African-American men and women and encouraged all of the doctors and nurses he worked with to keep up with the latest medical advances. Dr. Williams was a modern doctor far ahead of his time. His work on internal surgery and open heart surgery has saved countless lives, as did his dedication to cutting edge medicine (no pun intended).
2. Dr. George Washington Carver (1864-1943) – Do not patronize him and call him “The Peanut Guy.” An expert botanist, a community-oriented academic, and a hell of a scientist is probably the best way to describe Dr. Carver. He was the first African-American to graduate from AND the first African-American to teach at the Iowa State Agricultural College. Dr. Carver then worked at Tuskegee, actively using his science to revitalize agriculture in the south and help farmers. He encouraged people plant legumes because they add nitrogen, a vital plant nutrient, to the soil, and invented hundreds of peanut and sweet potato-centric products.
3. Dr. Charles H. Turner (1867-1923) – Charles H. Turner should be a famous biologist and educator, but as it is, this man who was the first African-American to get a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati and the first African-American to get published in Science is often overlooked. For those of you who are not scientists, getting published in Science is just … well, let’s just say that if I got a paper accepted by Science, you’d find me 2 weeks later, drunk off my ass, half naked on a beach in Hawaii. It’d be the biggest celebration of my life. A devoted high school teacher, Dr. Turner made truly ground-breaking discoveries in animal behavior, like the fact that insects can hear and that bees can recognize patterns and color. For context, the fact that bees can recognize patterns and color is the basis for pretty much all pollination work done in the last few decades. Yeah, that’s an entire field of biology that Dr. Turner opened up. So next time you see a bee, give Dr. Turner a thought. Or a citation.
4. Dr. Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941) – Another biologist, I know, I know, but you all, he is awesome. He got his PhD in experimental embryology. He taught at Howard and did research on parthenogenesis (when an unfertilized egg grows and develops. Don’t worry!! It won’t happen to you) at Wood’s Hole, which is basically the Dollywood of marine biology (aka, the happiest place on earth). His work on embryology and fertilization led to international acknowledgement and offers to work in renowned labs all over Europe. Dr. Just’s work was crucial for understanding how eggs develop and how they’re affected by external factors. Unfortunately, Dr. Just was working in France when Hitler invaded and spent a relatively brief time in a internment camp. This weakened Dr. Just and he succumbed to pancreatic cancer shortly after returning to the US.
5. Dr. J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. (1923-) – Do you want to feel bad about your accomplishments? Read on, then! Dr. Wilkins received his PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago at the age of 19. Nineteen! That’s not a typo. And if that wasn’t enough, he snagged himself some extra degrees in mechanical engineering (bachelors and masters) from NYU later in life. Apart from working on the Manhattan Project and designing nuclear reactors for energy generation, Dr. Wilkins published prolifically, pushing the edge of our collective knowledge in nuclear physics and mathematics.
PS – I know that it’s probably obvious to you all that everyone on the list would have a doctorate or MD, but these men worked hard and overcame huge obstacles to get those letters and I’ll be damned before I forget their proper titles.