FIELD OF STUDY: Mathematics; Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
ACTIVE RESEARCH ERA: 20th Century
DATE OF DEATH: 02/24/2020
AFFILIATED INSTITUTIONS OF WORK:
- West Virginia State College- B.S in Mathematics and French
RELATED PRINCETON COURSES/PDF TO INCLUDE IN THE COURSE:
Background, early life, and outside interests:
Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in West Virginia and was the youngest of 4 children. Her mom was a teacher and her dad was a lumberman. The town that she lived in did not offer schooling for children of color past the eighth grade but Johnson showed such a high aptitude for math that her parents decided to enroll her in a high school in Institue, West Virginia at the age of 10. By the age of 14, she had graduated high school and by 18 she had a degree in mathematics and French from West Virginia State (an HBCU).
During her time in college, she took every math course that was offered and even has additional math courses added just for her by one of her mentors, W.W. Schieffelin Claytor. After graduating she became a teacher at a black public school in Marion Virginia. She soon left her teaching job to pursue a graduate degree when she was selected as one of three African Americans to integrate West Virginia's graduate school after the Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, a case that declared that any public higher education institution that offered enrollment to white students must also offer enrollment to black students. At the end of the first semester, however, she became pregnant and choose to leave the university to begin a family with her husband. She had 3 daughters before returning to her work.
In June of 1953, Johnson was offered a position at NACA as a “computer”. She stood out from the other computers due to her curiosity. She was constantly asking questions and wanted to learn as much as she could about NACA (now known as NASA) and her position. Eventually, she began attending meetings- at the time she was the only woman in these rooms- and a bit later she became a team member who worked on different projects for NASA. She worked for NASA for more than 30 years before retiring in 1986.
Outside of science, she is said to have enjoyed “traveling, playing card games, and spending time with her family and friends”. She also enjoyed encouraging young students to pursue their dreams, especially STEM-based ones.
Most Notable Achievements:
As a NASA employee, Johnson figured out the paths for spacecrafts to orbit Earth and a bit later her calculations were used to help send astronauts to the Moon and back. Even today her work “remains at the core of human space travel”. Her calculations were also “crucial to the success of the Apollo lunar program”. In 2015 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and the next year she was celebrated in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly. Johnson’s handwritten calculations are also said to have been more widely trusted than those that were performed by computers, in fact, John Glenn refused to launch into space without having Johnson double-check the calculations.
Barriers broken by this scientist:
As a woman of color in a field that was very white male-dominated, Johnson often found herself being undervalued. Her position of “computer” was not that much higher ranked than a secretary or janitor even though she spent her days checking the work of her superiors- engineers. For most of her career, she was overlooked and overshadowed until President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Despite this, Johnson recalls that she didn’t feel much discrimination. Of course, there were instances where she was discriminated against but she says that she didn’t let those occurrences affect or demotivate her. When there was a space she was “meant” to stay out of she became relentless and eventually was granted the same privileges as her white male counterparts.
"Katherine Johnson - New World Encyclopedia". 2022. Newworldencyclopedia.Org. Accessed August 25. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Katherine_Johnson.
Shetterly, Margot. 2022. "Katherine Johnson Biography". NASA. Accessed August 25. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.
Smith, Harrison. 2020. "Katherine Johnson, ‘Hidden Figure’ At NASA During 1960S Space Race, Dies At 101". The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/katherine-johnson-hidde….
Wild, Flint. 2021. "Who Was Katherine Johnson?". NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/nasa-knows/who-wa….
"Women In STEM: Katherine Johnson". 2022. Space Center Houston. https://spacecenter.org/women-in-stem-katherine-johnson/.
Written by Vanessa Herrera