The study of science spans a vast range of subjects, from chemistry and astronomy to coding and medicine. Throughout all of these fields, Black women have made important contributions to both theoretical and practical aspects of science.
In this article, we’ve highlighted some of the top Black female scientists in the United States and the world.
1. Alexa Canady (1950-)
Born in Michigan, Alexa Canady received a degree in zoology from the University of Michigan in 1971. Four years later, she received her medical degree. In 1981, Canady became the first Black female neurosurgeon in the United States.
She specialized in pediatric neurosurgery, and from 1987 until 2001, she was the Chief of Neurosurgery at Michigan’s Children’s Hospital. In 1989, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
2. Alfreda Johnson Webb (1923-)
Born in Alabama, Alfreda Johnson Webb received her doctoral degree in Veterinary Medicine in 1949. She was one of the two first Black women to obtain a veterinary medical license in the United States. In 1950, she furthered her education by getting her Master’s degree in Anatomy.
She was the first Black person to join the Women’s Veterinary Association. Webb was a professor of biology and animal science. In 2016, she had a scholarship named after her that provides funds for minority students to study veterinary medicine.
3. Alice Ball (1892-1916)
In 1915, Alice Ball became the first Black person and the first woman to obtain a Master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. Ball also received degrees in both pharmacy and pharmaceutical chemistry.
Ball is famous for coming up with the first successful treatment for leprosy using chaulmoogra tree oil. Her ‘Ball method’ of treatment was used for over 30 years. At the age of 23, she became the University of Hawaii’s first female chemistry instructor.
Tragically, Ball died at the age of 24 after inhaling chlorine gas in an accident in a laboratory. The president of the University of Hawaii took credit for her work until a colleague identified her in 1922 as being the person behind the work.
In 2007, Ball was awarded the Regents’ Medal of Distinction by the University of Hawaii. A scholarship was named for her in 2017.
4. Alma Levant Hayden (1927-1967)
Born in South Carolina, Alma Levant Hayden attended the State University there, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1947. She later studied at Howard University, obtaining her Master’s degree.
Hayden worked at the National Institute of Arthritic and Metabolic Diseases and was one of the first Black women to work as a chemist with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
As the head of the FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Chemistry’s Spectrophotometry Branch, she used various techniques to assist in drug analysis and enforcement work. Hayden died of cancer at the age of 40.
5. Annie Easley (1933-2011)
Born in Alabama, Annie Easley received her degree in mathematics from Cleveland State University in 1977. She worked for NASA as a ‘human computer’ who performed calculations and later as a computer programmer.
She was involved in coding projects, including one that developed code for early hybrid vehicles’ battery technology. Easley also worked with NASA on evaluating the damage done to the ozone layer in the 1970s.
6. Aprille Ericsson-Jackson (1963-)
Born in New York, Aprille Ericsson-Jackson got her Bachelor’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1986 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She followed this up with a Master’s degree in Engineering in 1992 from Howard University.
She was the first Black woman to obtain a PhD in mechanical engineering from Howard University. She was also the first Black woman to receive a PhD in engineering from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
In 1997, this Black female scientist received the Women in Science and Engineering Award. Ericsson-Jackson currently works for NASA as an aerospace engineer. She received the NASA Exceptional Achievement in Outreach Award in 2002.
7. Gladys W. Royal (1926-2002)
Born in Texas, Gladys W. Royal received her Bachelor’s degree when she was only 18 years old. She worked as a professor of chemistry at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College. Some of her work included researching the impact of bone marrow on high-dose radiation exposure.
Royal obtained her Master’s degree in organic chemistry and a PhD in 1954. As a biochemist, she worked for the United States Department of Agriculture in the area of human nutrition.
8. Gladys West (1930-)
Mathematician Gladys West was born in Virginia. After high school, she received a scholarship to attend Virginia State University, where she received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mathematics.
She taught briefly before working as a programmer and project manager. She was the second Black woman to work at the United States Naval Surface Warfare Center. West invented a mathematical model of the Earth as well as space geodesy models that were used to create the Global Positioning System (GPS). In 2018, she was named one of BBC’s 100 Women.
9. Jeannette E. South-Paul (1953-)
Physician Jeannette E. South-Paul received her Bachelor’s degree in medical technology in 1975. She attended medical school at the University of Pittsburgh before working as a family physician for the United States Army.
She became the first Black person and the first woman to become a permanent chair at the University of Pittsburgh. She was appointed the chair of family medicine in 2001. She was awarded the American Academy of Family Physicians’ Exemplary Teaching Award.
10. Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924-2017)
Born in Chicago, Jewel Plummer Cobb received her Bachelor’s degree in biology in 1944 and her Master’s degree in 1947. She also obtained a PhD in 1950. She worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts as well as the National Cancer Institute in New York.
In 1955, she began teaching at the medical school at New York University. She became head of the biology laboratory at Sarah Lawrence College in 1960. In 1969, Cobb began teaching at Connecticut College and was the first Black dean in the school’s history.
Cobb is known mainly for her cancer research which included the discovery of methotrexate as an effective treatment. She served as president of California State University starting in 1981.
11. Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine Johnson graduated from West Virginia State University at the age of 18, with degrees in Mathematics and French. She worked for NASA as a ‘human computer’ performing calculations that allowed humans to travel to space.
She was involved with the 1961 mission that saw Alan Shepard become the first American to travel to space. She also worked on the calculations that helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Johnson was also involved in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Johnson’s story was told in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, based on the book by the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. In 2017, she was honored with the naming of the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at NASA’s Research Center. She died at the age of 101.
12. Mae C. Jemison (1956-)
Born in Alabama, Mae C. Jemison received her Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. She later attended Cornell University and received her Doctor of Medicine degree.
She worked as a general practitioner, taught, and did research before applying to NASA’s training program for astronauts. In 1987, she was one of just 15 individuals chosen from around 2000 applicants, making her the first Black woman to enter the program. The following year Jemison won the Essence Science and Technology Award.
Jemison was the first Black female astronaut and the first Black woman in space. In 1992 she was aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, where she performed experiments on motion sickness and weightlessness. That year she won the Ebony Black Achievement Award.
13. Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)
Born in New York, Marie Maynard Daly received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Chemistry. In 1947, she graduated from Columbia University and became the first Black woman in the United States to get her PhD in Chemistry.
As a biochemist, Daly studied how age and hypertension can affect the circulatory system, how the body digests food, and how proteins are made in the body. She also made connections between diet and health, including how high cholesterol levels are associated with heart problems.
In addition to her research, Daly taught biochemistry at Columbia University and was a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 1988, this Black female scientist started a scholarship program for minority students to study science.
14. Patricia Bath (1942-2019)
Ophthalmologist and laser scientist Patricia Bath received her degree in medicine from Howard University. In 1970, she was the first Black person in the United States to complete an ophthalmology residency program. In 1974, Bath became an assistant professor of surgery at Charles R. Drew University and a professor of ophthalmology at UCLA.
Along with a few of her colleagues, she founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1977. Bath was an advocate for Black people having more access to medical care, and she developed community ophthalmology as a response.
In 1983, she was the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States. Bath is famous for inventing a device and technique used in cataract surgery called the laserphaco.
15. Rebecca Lee Crumpler (1831-1895)
Born in Delaware, Rebecca Lee Crumpler started working as a nurse in 1855 and later attended the New England Female Medical College from 1860 to 1864. Upon graduation, she became the first Black woman in the United States to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree and practice as a physician.
As a doctor, Crumpler worked in both Massachusetts and Virginia, caring for Black women, children, and freed slaves. She was one of the first Black people to produce a medical publication; hers was entitled A Book of Medical Discourses in Two Parts.
16. Roger Arliner Young (1899-1964)
In 1916, Roger Arliner Young entered university to study music. She later developed an interest in zoology and marine biology. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in 1923 and her Master’s degree in 1926 from the University of Chicago.
Young was the first Black woman to receive a PhD in Zoology. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with her doctoral degree in 1940. Young worked as a professor and taught at Howard University, Shaw University, and North Carolina Central University.
17. Shirley Ann Jackson (1946-)
Born in New York, Shirley Ann Jackson attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in physics in 1968. She continued her studies at MIT and, in 1973, became the first Black woman to get a PhD from the school. Her doctorate was in nuclear physics.
Jackson was only the second woman in the United States to obtain a PhD in physics. She has worked for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and was chair of the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
She was the co-chair of President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board and served as the first female president of the National Society of Black Physicists. Jackson is the current president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
18. Sophia B. Jones (1857-1932)
Born in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, Sophia B. Jones attended medical school at the University of Michigan. She was the first Black female to graduate from the school’s medical program in 1885. That same year she began teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, becoming their first Black faculty member.
Jones founded the nursing program at Spelman College and later worked in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. She was an outspoken advocate for health equity for Black people and spoke about the health impacts of the intergenerational trauma of slavery.
19. Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)
Born in Kenya, Wangari Maathai received a scholarship to study in the United States. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry in 1964, followed by a Master’s degree in biology in 1966.
Maathai became the first woman from East Africa to earn a PhD, obtaining her doctorate in veterinary anatomy in 1971 from the University of Nairobi. As a biologist and environmental activist, she founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to promote environmental conservation and women’s rights.
In 2004, she was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She served as a member of Parliament in Kenya from 2003 to 2005 and worked as assistant minister of environmental and natural resources.
Maathai was the first president of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union. In 2007 she was awarded the Indira Gandhi Prize, and in 2009 she won an NAACP Image Award.
Best Black Female Scientists, Final Thoughts
Black women have been at the forefront of scientific discoveries that have added immense benefits to society. Despite facing many instances of both racism and sexism, Black women have overcome these systemic barriers to achieve greatness in their fields. From animal science and biology to physics and engineering, all areas of science have flourished with the contributions of Black women.