Celebrating Pioneering Black Women in Science

Part of AWIS’ advocacy is ensuring that women in science are recognized for their contributions. In honor of Black History Month, we want to acknowledge these pioneering scientists whose curiosity, determination, and brilliance helped light the way for other women and girls to follow in their footsteps. Be sure to check back later, we will add to this list throughout the month.

Photo: Public Domain

Alice Ball

Alice Ball, a chemist, developed the first successful treatment for Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. During the 1900s, those diagnosed with leprosy faced severe social discrimination and banishment, so Ball’s work enabled thousands of outcasted individuals to return home. Also, Ball was one of the first African-American women to receive a master’s degree in chemistry, and became the first female chemistry professor of the College of Hawaii. Due to other people taking credit for her work, she was largely forgotten, but recently she has received proper recognition for her work on leprosy and overcoming racial and gender barriers in science.


Photo: Public Domain

Dr. Patricia Bath


Dr. Patricia Bath was an ophthalmologist known for inventing the Laserphaco Probe, a tool used in cataract surgery. After obtaining a medical degree from Howard University, she attended Columbia University and was the first African American to complete an ophthalmology residency program (1973). She was the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program (1983). For 5 years, Bath worked on the Laserphaco Probe, a device that was able to precisely treat cataracts and even restore the sight of people who had been unable to see for 30 years. In 1988, she received a patent for the Laserphaco Probe, becoming the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent. She continued her work in ophthalmology until 1993, when she retired from UCLA Medical Center.


Dr. Alexa Canady

Photo: Public Domain

Dr. Alexa Canady


Dr. Alexa Canady is the first African-American woman to become a neurosurgeon. She graduated from University of Michigan Medical School in 1975, and began her surgical internship in 1975 at Yale-New Haven Hospital. She dealt with prejudice throughout her time at the hospital, such as being called the “equal-opportunity package.” When she became a neurosurgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, she was voted one of the top residents. In 1984, she became the first African-American woman to become certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. From 1987 to 2001, she was chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and has since helped thousands of pediatric patients.


Source: Changing the Face of Medicine

Dr. May Edward Chinn


Dr. May Edward Chinn was a physician known for her advocacy towards new methods to detect cancer. In 1926, she became the first black woman to graduate from the University of Bellevue Hospital Medical College, and the first black woman to hold an internship at Harlem Hospital. When she was banned from all New York’s hospitals like other black physicians, she personally met patients at their homes. She worked on studying cancer detection methods with George Papanicolaou, who created the Pap smear test. Throughout her career, she promoted cancer screening, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Columbia University for her work in medicine.

Source: Queens College Silhouette Yearbook 1942

Dr. Marie Maynard Daly


Dr. Marie Daly was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the United States. After she earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Queens College in 1942, Daly completed her master’s degree at New York University in only one year. At Columbia University, she studied how bodily compounds contribute to digestion and earned her doctoral degree in just three years. Her postdoctoral research at the Rockerfeller Institute focused on the composition of the cell’s nucleus and how proteins are metabolised. She taught at Howard University, Columbia University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. While devoting her time to research, Daly helped develop programs aimed at increasing minority enrollment in medical school and graduate programs. In 1988, she created a scholarship fund at Queens College for African-American science graduates.

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee

Physician and Obstetrician

Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee was a physician who tirelessly worked to make healthcare more equitable for African-Americans. After she graduated top of her class, she could not find any positions at Massachusetts hospitals due to discrimination, so she moved to Washington D.C. to become an obstetrician at Howard University Hospital. In 1925, she established the Southeast Neighborhood House to give black communities greater access to healthcare. At the time of the Great Depression, Ferebee served as the voluntary medical director of the Mississippi Health Project, providing equitable healthcare to all state residents.

Source: Wikipedia

Mary Elliott Hill

Organic and Analytical Chemist

Mary Elliott Hill was an organic and analytical chemist, born in North Carolina. She attended the Virginia State College for Negroes, now Virginia State University (VSU) from 1925-1929. She taught at VSU and took graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania. She was one of the earliest African American women to acquire her master’s degree in chemistry (1941). Her work specified in ultraviolet light and using that to develop analytic methodology. While an associate professor and acting head of the chemistry department at Kentucky State University, she collaborated with her husband Carl McClellan Hill in developing the ketene synthesis, which aided in the development in plastics.

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Jane Hinton

Researcher and Veterinarian

Dr. Jane Hinton, a researcher and veterinarian, was a notable scientist in the field of bacterial resistance and veterinary medicine. After graduating from Simmons College in 1939, she worked with John Howard Mueller at Harvard University, where she helped develop Mueller-Hinton agar, a medium used to culture bacteria even today. In 1949, she earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Tuskegee University. She was one of the first African-American veterinarians in the nation, establishing her own practice in Massachusetts.

Source: Public Domain

Dr. Shirley Jackson

Theoretical Physicist

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a theoretical physicist and the 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). She was the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and founded the MIT Black Student Union, increasing African-American enrollment from two to 57 in only one year. While working at AT&T Bell Laboratories and Rutgers University, she prepared or collaborated on over 100 scientific articles. She was the first female and African-American President of RPI and introduced the Rensselaer Plan, improving the school’s academics and enrollment. She was appointed Chairman of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission where she established a strategic assessment program, completely remaking the program to become more efficient. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Dr. Shirley Jackson the National Medal of Science, the highest honor to individuals who made contributions to scientific fields.

Source: National Women’s History Museum

Dr. Mae C. Jemison

Physician and Astronaut

Dr. Jemison is a doctor, engineer, physicist, and astronaut who became the first African American woman to travel into outer space. Growing up, she always had a passion for science and was upset because she saw no female astronauts. She attended Stanford University and Cornell Medical School. After serving two years in the Peace Corps, she opened a private medical practice. In 1987, she applied and was selected to train at NASA. On September of 1992, she and six other astronauts went into space on the space shuttle “Endeavor.” After leaving NASA, Jemison started a consulting company that advocates for science, technology and social change, while also teaching environmental studies at Dartmouth. She has received multiple awards and serves on the Board of Directors of many organizations. She is continuing her passion for space and leading the 100 Year Starship Project.

Source: NASA

Katherine Johnson


Katherine Johnson was a NASA mathematician who helped calculate the flight path for NASA’s first manned space mission in 1962, and made important calculations for the Apollo moon landing. Her story was depicted in the film “Hidden Figures,” a critically acclaimed movie detailing the experience of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson — three African-American mathematicians who worked on John Glenn’s first launch into space. She continued working at Langley Research Center for 33 years and retired in 1986. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. She died on February 24, 2020 at 101 years old.

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Angie Turner King

Chemist, Mathematician, and Educator
Angie King was an African American chemist, mathematician, and educator. She was an associate professor at West Virginia State College. During this time, she made sure to educate her students on the true meaning of “working in a laboratory” and used her position as a professor to improve the quality of student scientific research. She also taught chemistry to soldiers in the West Virginia State’s Army Specialized Training Program. In the 1970s, she made a presentation called “The Status of Women in East Africa” to highlight women who were working at this time. She continued using her knowledge to help and educate others, and after her retirement she received an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree.

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Ruth Smith Lloyd


Dr. Ruth Lloyd was known as the first African American woman to acquire her doctorate degree in Anatomy. She started her work in pursuing a degree in zoology, then doctoral research where she studied in the fertility of female Macaque monkeys. She taught Anatomy and Physiology in 1955. During this, she studied on endocrinology, sex-related hormones, and medical genetics. She was an active member of the Sigma Xi Honorary Scientific Society and the American Association of Anatomists. Outside of her work, she was very dedicated to the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington. All of her contributions, including being a charter member of the National Museum of Women in Arts, serve as a basis for researchers today.


Photo: Public Domain

Dr. Joan Murrell Owens

Marine Biologist

Dr. Joan Murrell Owens was a marine biologist who classified the genus of Rhombopsammia, a type of button corals and three new species. From an early age, Owens was drawn to the oceans and wanted to become a marine biologist. In 1950, she enrolled in Fisk University, but they did not offer any marine biology courses. She majored in fine arts and then taught English at Howard University. In 1970, she was able to construct her own marine biology degree by majoring in geology and minoring in zoology. Because she suffered from sickle cell anemia, she wasn’t able to research life underwater, so she worked with the Smithsonian and studied existing samples of button corals. She received her PhD in 1984 and continued to teach at Howard until her retirement in 1995.

Photo: Public Domain

Carolyn Parker

After receiving an MS in mathematics (1941 from University of Michigan), Carolyn Parker was the first African American to earn a postgraduate degree in physics (1951 from Massachusetts Institute of Technology). She was a research physicist at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio who’s work regarding the Dayton Project was extremely influential. The Dayton Project was a part of the Manhattan Project which aided in the making of atomic weapons during World War II and the Cold War. Much of her work was kept private during this time. She died of leukemia, likely as a direct result from radiation exposure during her work, and this illness kept her from finishing her doctoral program.

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© 2023 Association for Women in Science. All Rights Reserved.

© 2023 Association for Women in Science. All Rights Reserved.