The month of June is upon us, bringing thoughts of beach parties, sunshine, and opportunities for outdoor fun. However, for some, June also brings the remembrance of the Middle Passage and the subsequent liberation of the formerly enslaved people in America. Juneteenth is an opportunity for those of us who celebrate to remember those who came before and enabled Americans of African descent to live freely and build a better world than the one that came before. On the shoulders of those newly freed Black Americans came great scientists, inventors, engineers, and mathematicians. Some had previously been enslaved peoples while others were only one or two generations removed from formerly enslaved peoples within their family line. But all made innovations that changed America and the world.
Marie M. Daly
African American cuisine, specifically soul food, is known all over the world for being delicious. But it is also known for not being good for the body long term. Marie M. Daly, a biochemist from Queens, NY, took on the study of how foods can affect a person's health and wellness in 1955. She discovered a link between clogged arteries, high cholesterol, and heart attacks. During that time, the idea of a connection between diet and health was considered a groundbreaking discovery. In other words, Dr. Daly is the reason why we know not to pile our plates quite so high during cookout season.
Mark E. Dean
Though they are often frustrating and hard to deal with, printers are essential appliances in both homes and businesses alike. We can thank Mark E. Dean for the technology behind making them work. Back in the 80s at a little business called "International Business Machines" (or IBM), he was one of the main engineers behind allowing computers and other devices to communicate with printers. To this day, he is considered one of IBM's greatest minds in computer engineering.
Percy L. Julian
George Washington Carver isn't the only black man who can innovate with just a legume and a dream. Using soybeans and soybean oil, Percy L. Julian was able to create cortisone, steroids, and a particularly helpful "bean soup" substance that extinguished fires during WWII. The medicines that he was able to create have been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and glaucoma. Though his nickname, "The Soybean Chemist" is a silly one, physostigmine is hailed as one of the top Achievements in American Chemistry. And there's nothing funny about that.
Reading maps and compasses does not come easy to many people. Discerning streets and highways in a new environment can be close to impossible. But thanks to Gladys West, the difficulty that can come with navigating is much easier to handle. After gaining both a bachelor's and a master's degree in Mathematics, (the former in 1952 and the latter in 1955), she went to work for the Navy in 1956. While there, she was able to create a way for satellites hovering in the Earth's atmosphere to interface with supercomputers and determine the exact elevation of a given point. This led to the development of modern GPS technology. So, though maps and compasses are by no means obsolete, it is thanks to Gladys West that using those items can be relegated to Plan B.
Though Juneteenth is a day to celebrate and remember those who came before, it is only one day. It would take hundreds, if not thousands of holidays to celebrate all of the Black innovators who revolutionized our world. This is why learning about new Black innovators should be an everyday goal. But when learning about those innovators, it is important to remember how these visionaries came to be. Formerly enslaved people paved the way forward for every one of them. May their memory pave the way forward for the innovators of tomorrow as well.
“Black Innovators in STEM Who Changed the World.” Orlando Science Center, 14 May 2021, https://www.osc.org/black-innovators-in-stem-who-changed-the-world/.
“Black Scientists and Inventors: Black History Month.” Science, National Geographic Kids, 10 Feb. 2021, https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/black-inventors-and-pioneers-of-science.
“Gladys B. West · Virginia Changemakers.” Omeka RSS, https://edu.lva.virginia.gov/changemakers/items/show/362.
“Marie M. Daly.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 12 Jan. 2021, https://www.biography.com/scientist/marie-m-daly.
“Ten Black Scientists That Science Teachers Should Know About.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 16 May 2022, https://www.pbs.org/education/blog/ten-black-scientists-that-science-teachers-should-know-about-and-free-resources.