A History of Excellence: African-American Contributions to Science

Paul Public Charter School founder, Cecile Middleton, was a great educator and a powerful voice for quality education in the District of Columbia. It was her vision that established Paul as one of the earliest charter schools in the area, and it was her commitment to excellence that still drives Paul to be one of the best schools in the District of Columbia today.

In science and education, there is real value in hearing about those who have come before us. Hearing their stories opens the door between young minds and the future, making it possible for students to think big and dream big.

One way that we can encourage African American students to envision themselves in STEM careers is to share with them the stories of the giants who have come before them. Here are just a few of those stories:

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, who lived from 1865 to 1943, is famously given credit for the invention of peanut butter. He didn’t, actually – the credit for that goes to the Ancient Aztecs and Incas – but that doesn’t really matter, even if you love peanut butter. What Carver did invent is over 300 uses for peanuts. You must be thinking, “Wow, he really loved peanuts!” You might be right, and Carver’s work with peanuts was responsible for making peanuts the popular snack food we enjoy today, but there’s more!

The real reason Carver invented so many uses for the peanut was to support something else that he invented. You see, cotton farmers had discovered that season after season of planting cotton in the same soil would deplete the minerals in the soil that cotton plants needed to grow, and after a while the plants wouldn’t produce as much cotton.

Carver was a botanical researcher, and he discovered that if farmers would plant peanut plants in between cotton harvests, the peanut plants would actually put some of those minerals back into the soil, making the cotton plants grow bigger and produce more cotton. The problem? Farmers believed that planting peanuts was risky, because there wasn’t much use for peanuts at that time. So in addition to inventing literally hundreds of uses for peanuts, Carver used science to help change the way we thought about farming, using a method now known as crop rotation.

Charles Richard Drew

Charles Richard Drew became the first African American man to complete a Doctor of Science degree at Columbia University in 1940. Drew’s contributions to science have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and are still being used today, almost 80 years later. What did he contribute? Drew figured out a way to safely store and transport blood plasma, which allowed the “banking” of life-saving blood – something that wasn’t possible before. This helped ensure that blood transfusions would be available for use in surgeries, or in cases of serious injury. In 1977, the American Red Cross Headquarters was renamed the Charles R. Drew Blood Center in his honor.

Lewis Latimer

Lewis Latimer is someone that not many have heard, but he had a hand in some of the biggest inventions in history. He was born in Massachusetts in 1848, and joined the Navy in 1863 at the age of only 15. Two years later, he took on a job working at a patent office for $3.00 a week. He quickly developed a talent for technical drawings and was promoted to head draftsman.

When Alexander Graham Bell applied for his first patent of the telephone, it was Latimer who created the first drawings of this new device. Later, Latimer created a new type of light bulb, which would last significantly longer than the one created by Edison. Latimer even wrote the first book ever published about electric lights. Later, Edison’s light company hired Latimer to supervise and plan the installation of the first electric lights in several major cities around the world. Latimer is an inductee in the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his work.

A Scientific Legacy

There are so many great stories of African American contributions to science, it is hard to pick just a few. Katherine Johnson, who worked as a mathematician at NASA, and who inspired the movie Hidden Figures, Garrett Morgan, who invented the gas mask, and Madam C. J. Walker, who changed the way we think about and care for African American hair.

Without the contributions of these great individuals, we would not have many of the technologies and advancements we have today. These are the giants whose shoulders the scientists of the future will stand on. By sharing their stories, we can inspire the next generation of great inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs.