The work and pioneering done by Black Americans has historically gone unrecognized across many areas/fields, including science. Black Americans make up 12% of the US population and have experienced the most disadvantages and setbacks in education than any other group in the country. For this reason, it is believed that there are not many Black scientists or Black people in STEM of note; however, this is not true historically nor in the present day. The work of Black scientists has led to discoveries that have changed our understanding in areas including health, space travel, public safety and more.

Many of these Black scientists faced the added challenge of navigating racism, discrimination and segregation, on top of the challenging work they accomplished. These individuals defied all doubt, prejudice and other obstacles in their way to make ground breaking discoveries that help us learn more about the world and prove how vital Black scientists’ contributions in STEM are.

Here are 15 Black scientists of the past and present.

George Washington Carver (1860s-1943)

Carver stands second from right
Photo Credit: Heritage Art/Heritage Images

George Washington Carver was born into slavery but went on to become one of the most prominent agricultural scientists and inventors of his time. He developed hundreds of products from peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, including food products, dyes, cosmetics, and biofuels. Carver’s work not only improved agricultural practices but also contributed to the economic empowerment of Southern farmers. Carver is best known for his work with peanuts and soybeans. This led to the common misconception that he was the inventor of peanut butter. However, he developed hundreds of products from these crops, including plastics, dyes and even gasoline. He is remembered as a pioneer in agricultural science and a symbol of resilience and ingenuity.

Mae Jemison (b. 1956)

Mae Jemison at 9th Annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony
Photo Credit: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Mae Jemison is an American engineer, physician and former NASA astronaut. In 1992, she became the first African American woman to travel in space. During her eight-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-47), Jemison conducted experiments on bone cell research in space, contributing to our understanding of how space travel affects the human body. Throughout her career, she has been an advocate for science education and diversity in STEM fields. Jemison’s historic spaceflight shattered barriers for Black women and other BIPOC individuals. She continues to be a role model for aspiring scientists and astronauts around the world.

Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975)

Percy Lavon Julian was a pioneering chemist known for his groundbreaking research on the synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. Julian’s most significant contributions include the synthesis of physostigmine, a drug used to treat glaucoma, and cortisone, a steroid hormone used to treat inflammation and autoimmune diseases. His research played a crucial role in making these drugs more affordable and accessible to patients. Despite facing discrimination throughout his career, Julian’s perseverance and scientific achievements earned him recognition as one of the leading chemists of his time. He is remembered as a trailblazer who overcame racial barriers to make lasting contributions to science and medicine.

Shirley Ann Jackson (b. 1946)

US President Barack Obama awards the National Medal of Science to Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Photo Credit: Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a physicist and the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Jackson’s research has primarily focused on theoretical physics, semiconductor physics and condensed matter physics. She conducted groundbreaking research in the field of semiconductors, leading to advancements in telecommunications and computing. Her work laid the foundation for technologies such as fiber optics, solar cells and the portable fax machine. Jackson also served as the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999, becoming the first woman and first Black American to hold this position.

Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)

Garrett Morgan was an inventor, entrepreneur, and community leader known for his innovations in traffic safety and respiratory protection. Many know that a black scientist was the creator of the traffic light, but do not know Morgan is the man behind the invention. Morgan’s most famous invention is the three-position traffic signal, which he patented in 1923. His design included a warning light to alert drivers before the signal changed, improving road safety and reducing traffic accidents. He also invented the safety hood, a precursor to the modern gas mask, which was used to protect workers from inhaling toxic fumes. Morgan’s inventions saved countless lives and had a significant impact on public safety. He persevered through the discrimination he faced as a Black man to impact the world forever.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (b. 1958)

Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks during a Q&A
Photo Credit: John Lamparski

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, author, and science communicator known for his efforts to popularize science and make complex concepts accessible to the public. yson has made significant contributions to astrophysics through his research on star formation, galaxy evolution, and the structure of the Milky Way. However, he is perhaps best known for his work in science communication. Tyson has hosted several television series, including “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” and “StarTalk,” where he discusses scientific topics in an engaging and entertaining manner. He has also authored numerous books aimed at making science understandable and engaging for people of all ages. Tyson’s ability to convey complex scientific concepts with enthusiasm and clarity has made him a beloved figure in the world of science and education.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

Photo Credit: Eddy Chen/Disney General Entertainment Content

Katherine Johnson was a mathematician whose calculations were critical to the success of NASA’s early space missions. She is one of the most famous Black scientists in history. Johnson’s mathematical genius played a pivotal role in the Mercury and Apollo space programs. She calculated trajectories, launch windows and re-entry paths for many of NASA’s missions, including Alan Shepard’s 1961 flight and John Glenn’s historic orbit around the Earth in 1962. Her calculations were so accurate that Glenn specifically requested her verification before his flight. Johnson’s work was instrumental in ensuring the safety and success of NASA’s missions during the space race.

Katherine Johnson’s contributions to space exploration were recognized with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Her story gained widespread attention following the publication of the book “Hidden Figures” and the subsequent film adaptation, bringing her achievements to a broader audience. She is celebrated not only for her groundbreaking work as a mathematician but also for breaking barriers as an African American woman in a male-dominated field.

Emmett W. Chappelle (1925-2013)

Emmett W. Chappelle is a biochemist who has made significant contributions to the field of bioluminescence and astrobiology. Chappelle’s research focused on understanding the biochemical processes underlying bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms. He developed techniques to measure and analyze bioluminescence, leading to advancements in medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and space exploration. Chappelle’s work has applications in diverse fields, from detecting microbial contamination in water to studying extraterrestrial life on other planets. His research has had a lasting impact on science and technology, earning him numerous awards and honors, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923)

Charles Henry Turner was a pioneering zoologist and behaviorist who conducted groundbreaking research on insect behavior. Turner’s research challenged prevailing notions about animal intelligence and behavior. He conducted experiments demonstrating that insects are capable of learning and problem-solving, findings that were revolutionary at the time. Turner’s experiments with ants, bees, and other insects provided valuable insights into their sensory perception, communication, and social behavior. His work laid the foundation for modern studies of animal behavior and cognition. Turner faced racial discrimination and limited opportunities for academic recognition throughout his entire career. His contributions have finally been receiving recognition in recent years, and are more proof that the contributions of Black scientists are so crucial.

James West (b. 1931)

James West is an American inventor and acoustical scientist known for his pioneering work in the field of electret transducers. Along with his colleague Gerhard Sessler, West co-invented the electret microphone in 1962 while working at Bell Laboratories. The electret microphone is a type of condenser microphone that uses a permanently charged material to convert sound waves into electrical signals. It is widely used in various applications, including telephones, hearing aids, recording studios and medical devices. West’s work has had a profound impact on audio technology, making it possible for millions of people around the world to communicate and enjoy music more effectively. West’s contributions to acoustical science have earned him numerous awards and honors, including induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He continues to inspire aspiring scientists and engineers with his innovative spirit and dedication to scientific discovery.

Kizzmekia Corbett (b. 1986)

US President Joe Biden (L) listens to Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett (R)
Photo Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP

Kizzmekia Corbett is an American viral immunologist who played a key role in the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Corbett’s research focuses on understanding the immune response to viral infections and developing vaccines to prevent them. As a female Black scientist, she led the National Institutes of Health (NIH) team that worked with Moderna to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Corbett’s expertise in vaccine development and her leadership in coordinating clinical trials were instrumental in the rapid development and testing of the Moderna vaccine. She has become a role model for aspiring scientists, particularly young female Black scientists, and an advocate for vaccine equity and public health.

Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)

Marie Maynard Daly was an American biochemist and the first Black American woman to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. Daly’s research focused on understanding the biochemical mechanisms underlying heart disease, particularly the role of cholesterol in atherosclerosis. She made significant contributions to our understanding of how diet and lifestyle affect cardiovascular health. Daly’s research laid the foundation for the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs and dietary interventions to reduce the risk of heart disease. This pioneering work has had an understated, lasting impact on cardiovascular research and public health.

Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941)

Ernest Everett Just was an American biologist and pioneer in the field of embryology. Just conducted groundbreaking research on the fertilization and development of marine organisms, particularly sea urchins. His research focused on understanding the role of cell surface interactions in embryonic development, and he made significant discoveries about the mechanisms of fertilization and cell division. Just’s meticulous experimental techniques and observations laid the foundation for modern developmental biology. He is another of these remarkable Black scientists that had overcome to racial discrimination, as well as financial challenges, to become one of the leaders in their field.

Patricia Bath (1942-2019)

Dr. Patricia Bath of Laserphaco attends the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards
Photo Credit: Jemal Countess

Patricia Bath was an American ophthalmologist, inventor, and academic known for her game-changing contributions to the field of ophthalmology. Bath invented the Laserphaco Probe, a device used in laser cataract surgery to remove cataracts with greater precision and less damage to surrounding tissue. Her invention revolutionized cataract surgery, making it safer and more effective, particularly for patients in developing countries. Bath was also a passionate advocate for vision care and health equity, founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness to provide eye care services and education to underserved communities.

Bath’s pioneering work in ophthalmology and her advocacy for health equity have had a lasting impact on public health and medicine. She broke barriers as the first Black American woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology and the first Black American woman to receive a medical patent. Bath’s legacy continues to inspire future generations of scientists, inventors and healthcare professionals.

Aprille Ericsson (b. 1963)

Dr. Aprille J. Ericsson attends Black Cloud Tech Summit - BGR! Fest
Photo Credit: Brian Stukes

Aprille Ericsson-Jackson is an American aerospace engineer known for her contributions to NASA’s space exploration missions. Ericsson has worked on numerous NASA projects, including the Mars Exploration Rovers, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. She has made significant contributions to spacecraft design, guidance systems, and mission planning. Her contributions to space exploration have also been recognized with numerous awards and honors, including the Black Engineer of the Year Award and the Women in Aerospace Achievement Award. She is honorably another indicator of how important the role of Black scientists has been for NASA/space exploration.