March 28, 2014
Meet Katherine Johnson, A True Pioneer
Today, women work in every field—from ditch diggers to astronauts. That was not always the case, however. In the not too distant past, the only reason for a woman to go to college was to become a secretary, a nurse, a teacher…or a wife. This was especially true if you were African-American.
That’s why Katherine Johnson entered college during the Great Depression. Her mother was a teacher and she expected to be one as well, though she couldn’t decide between math or French.
“Math is just there. It has always been a part of whatever I was doing. You are either right, or you are wrong. There is an exact answer for everything.”
Katherine Coleman (her birth name) was a precocious child. She was reading by the age of four, and counted everything. Her mother started a summer school for the kids in her area, and put Katherine straight into second grade based on her abilities. She was the youngest child in her family, but she helped the other children with their math homework and ended up two grades ahead of her next oldest brother. She entered college—West Virginia University—at the age of 15 to work on her teaching degree.
Mrs. Johnson lucked out, though. One of her professors—noted African-American mathematician W.W. Schieffelin Claytor, PhD—noticed how very good at math she was, and pushed her to take advanced math classes. He told her that she could be a research mathematician, and when she asked what that was, he said, “You’ll find out out.” Claytor—who was only the third African-American to earn a PhD in math—had her take every class in the catalog, even when she was the only student in the class. He even created a special course in analytical geometry just for her.
Johnson had other supporters as well, including a woman math professor who offered to “come find her” if Johnson was not in her classes come the next semester. Johnson graduated in 1934 with a double major of French and mathematics. She re-entered college in 1940 to earn a graduate degree, but family problems forced her to leave before completing it.
After graduating, Johnson taught high school for seven years before applying to work at Langley Research Center the first year they opened up positions to women. The folks at Langley, which would later become part of NASA, had filled their “quota” for the year, so they asked her to wait. Johnson moved her family to Hampton, VA. where her first husband, James Gobles, became a painter at the Naval Shipyard.
At first, Katherine was part of a pool of “women computers.” Think of a large room of women with calculators checking the math of the men, or performing low-level calculations. Katherine and one of her “computers with skirts” colleagues were temporarily transferred to the, previously, all-male flight research team. Her work was so good, and her demeanor so self-confident, that they forgot to “return her.” Like she was loaned out as a library book!
This was just the start for our 95-year-old heroine. She worked on everything from Alan Shepard’s space flight trajectories, to planning our first mission to Mars. John Glenn’s orbit around Earth was the first time NASA used computers to calculate a space flight—and Johnson was called in to verify the computer’s numbers because they trusted her more.
She ended her career at NASA as a both a physicist and space scientist, co-authoring over 26 papers—a feat unheard of in those days for either “women computers” or African-American women. Mrs. Johnson retired from NASA in 1979 to spend time with her husband, Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She is truly an inspiration for women and African-Americans in Science and Technology.
Mrs. Johnson will be part of a new digital and television initiative, created by AOL and PBS, to honor groundbreaking women. The series is called MAKERS, and PBS will be airing six documentaries starting in June of this year. Mrs. Johnson will be part of MAKERS: Women & Space. You can get a sneak preview of her interview here.
Image Credit: NASA / Sean Smith