Category Archives: Black History Month

Black History Month 2019 – #7: Fourteen Black Doctors who Made History

It’s 2017 and Black doctors only make up about 7.5 percent of the US physician workforce. While there’s still much progress to be made, African Americans already figure significantly in the history of medicine.

There were many articles about African American doctors who were firsts in their fields. I pared it down to 14 that I thought were outstanding. Here are 14 African American MDs who made medical history:

  1. James McCune Smith was the first African American to earn an MD and practice in the United States. After he was denied college admission in the United States, he moved to Scotland and earned his medical degree there in 1837. Smith also is believed to be the first black physician to publish articles in U.S. medical journals. His writings include texts on science, education, racism and literature. Dr. Smith opened what’s thought to be the country’s first African American-owned pharmacy. He used his training in medicine and statistics to refute common misconceptions about race, intelligence, medicine and society in general.


  1. Alexander Augusta was the first black physician appointed director of a US hospital. Dr. Augusta earned his medical degree at Trinity Medical College in Toronto, Canada, and established a successful medical practice in Canada before relocating to the U.S. in 1862. Drafted to serve in the Civil War, Dr. Augusta became the first commissioned black surgeon in the U.S. Army in 1863. He later became the first black physician to direct a U.S. hospital — Freedman’s Hospital in Washington D.C, at the placement of President Lincoln. In 1865, Augusta was promoted to lieutenant colonel, at the time the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. military.  He was mustered out of service in 1866. After the military, Augusta was in charge of the Lincoln Hospital in Savannah, Georgia until 1868 when he started his own practice in Washington, D.C. Dr. Augusta continued in private practice and became a professor at Howard University Medical Department. He died in 1890 and was the first black officer to be buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.


  1. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, a Delaware native, is widely acknowledged as the first African-American woman physician in the U.S. She was born in 1831 and worked as a nurse in Massachusetts before applying to the New England Female Medical College in 1860.She graduated in 1864, becoming the first and only African-American graduate of that institution, which closed in 1873. For many years, Crumpler’s status as the first African-American woman to become a physician was not known; that distinction was mistakenly given to Rebecca Cole, who graduated from Women’s Medical College in Pennsylvania three years after Crumpler’s graduation Dr. Crumpler published a Book of Medical Discourses in 1883, which drew information from her clinical experiences to help women better care for the health of their families It is one of the very first medical publications by an African-American. She purposely moved her practice to Richmond, Virginia after the Civil War ended to serve African-Americans there, despite the intense racism that was prevalent.


  1. Daniel Hale Williams was a doctor of many “firsts”. He was the first physician to found a black-owned hospital with an interracial staff – Chicago’s Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses in 1891, one of the first physicians to perform open heart surgery in the US in 1893, the first to establish a professional organization for black medical practitioners in 1895 – the National Medical Association, and was the first black member of the American College of Surgeons which he was a charter member of in 1913. He was well ahead of his time, using sterilization procedures in his practice that were developed by Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister to prevent germ transmission. From 1893-1898, he was Surgeon-in-Chief at, Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, DC. He revitalized the hospital that cared for former slaves, improving surgical procedures, increasing specialization, and launching ambulance services. .


  1. Solomon Carter Fuller was the first Black psychiatrist in the United States recognized by the APA. Fuller researched degenerative brain disorders with Dr. Alois Alzheimer while in medical school and became an authority on Alzheimer’s disease research. After earning his medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1897, Fuller pioneered Alzheimer’s research during his career and advanced the study of many other neurodegenerative diseases, including schizophrenia and manic depression. He published the first comprehensive review of Alzheimer’s cases in 1912. He also helped correctly diagnose and train others to correctly diagnose the side effects of syphilis to prevent black war veterans from getting misdiagnosed, discharged, and ineligible for military benefits. He eventually became an emeritus professor of neurology at Boston University.


  1. William Augustus Hinton: graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1909, after which he worked in Harvard’s Wassermann Laboratory. Dr. Hinton was appointed professor of preventive medicine and hygiene at Harvard Medical School in 1918 — the first black instructor in the school’s history. From 1921-1946, he taught bacteriology and immunology at Harvard before being promoted to clinical professor in 1949.Dr. Hinton later became a world-renowned expert in the diagnosis and treatment of syphilis. In 1927, he developed a diagnostic test for syphilis, known as the Hinton test, which was eventually endorsed by the U.S. Public Health Service. Hinton was the first African-American physician to publish a textbook, called Syphilis and Its Treatment.


  1.   Charles R. Drew was the first African American to earn an MD from Columbia University in 1940.  Drew pioneered methods of storing blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the U.S. during WWII. Following the war, Dr. Drew began developing a blood storage program at the American Red Cross but resigned soon after officials decided to segregate the blood of African-Americans Dr. Drew was first black examiner for the American Board of Surgery. He was the first Director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, a professor at Howard University and Chief Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital.


  1. Louis T. Wright graduated fourth in his class at Harvard Medical School. His step-father, William Fletcher Penn, was the first African-American to graduate from Yale School of Medicine. While serving as a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps in World War I, Dr. Wright developed the intradermal injection vaccination technique. In 1919, he moved to New York amid racial tensions in Georgia to set up a private practice in Harlem and established ties to the Harlem Hospital, where he was the first African-American on the surgical staff. I n his thirty years at the hospital,  he started the Harlem Hospital Bulletin, headed the team that first used chlortetracycline on humans, founded the hospital’s cancer research center, and earned a reputation as an expert on head injuries


  1. Jane C. Wright, daughter of Louis T. Wright and niece of Harold Dadford West, president of Meharry Medical College, is a pioneering cancer researcher and accomplished surgeon. Her work is largely responsible for elevating chemotherapy from a last-ditch effort at treating cancer patients to a viable treatment option. She completed her residency at Harlem (N.Y.) Hospital, where she later served as chief resident. In 1964, working as part of a team at New York University School of Medicine, Dr. Wright developed a nonsurgical method using a catheter system to deliver heavy doses of anticancer drugs to previously hard-to-reach tumor areas in the kidneys, spleen and elsewhere. Dr. Wright served as associate dean and head of cancer chemotherapy department at New York Medical College in New York City in 1967. In 1964, she was the only woman among seven physicians who helped to found the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and in 1971, she was the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.


  1. Patricia Bath is a pioneer in the treatment and prevention of blindness. She also advocated for eyesight as a basic human right by founding the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness in 1976. She discovered that African Americans were twice as likely to suffer from blindness and eight times more likely to develop glaucoma than others and as a result, created a community ophthalmology system which increased eye care to the underserved. Bath became the first African-American to complete a residency in ophthalmology in 1973, which led to her appointment two years later as the first woman faculty member at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1988, Bath became the first African-American woman physician to receive a medical patent with her Laserphaco Probe, which improved cataract treatment. Dr. Bath retired from her post 10 years later and has since become an advocate for telemedicine, serving in roles related to the emerging technology at Howard University and St. George’s University in Grenada.


  1. Alexa Canady became the first African-American woman neurosurgeon in the U.S. in 1981. She served as chief of neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987-2001. She completed her residency at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and went on to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery, practicing at a number of respected medical institutions. In her most notable role, she served as chief of neurosurgery at Detroit-based Children’s Hospital of Michigan from 1987 to 2001. Under her guidance, the department gained national recognition and has consistently been ranked among America’s best pediatric neurosurgery programs in S. News & World Report‘s Best Children’s Hospitals list. Intending to retire when she moved to Florida, Canady instead began practicing part-time after learning that there were no pediatric neurosurgeons based at Pensacola’s Sacred Heart Hospital.


  1. Marilyn Hughes Gaston was the first African American and female director of a public health bureau – the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Primary Health Care where she focused on improving healthcare access to underserved and minority communities from 1990-2001. Gaston earned her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in 1964 and completed her internship in pediatric medicine at Philadelphia General Hospital. She is credited for her groundbreaking research in sickle cell anemia and published a study of sickle-cell anemia in 1986 that led to a nationwide test for newborns.


  1. Joycelyn Elders The unapologetically outspoken Dr. Elders was appointed the first African-American Surgeon General by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and subsequently asked to resign when the administration took exception to Dr. Elders’ outspoken advocacy of early sex education, drug education and distribution of contraception in schools. Born to a family of impoverished farmers in 1933, Jocelyn Elders grew up in a rural, segregated pocket of Arkansas. In spite of socioeconomic obstacles, Dr. Elders earned her medical degree from the University of Arkansas Medical School in Little Rock in 1960. She returned to the university for her residency in 1961, after which she became chief resident responsible for a team of all-white, all-male residents and interns. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Elders director of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987. Dr. Elders spent many years teaching medicine and was an accomplished pediatric endocrinologist. She remains a voice for progressive ideas in medicine and education.

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Black History Month 2019 – #6 – NASA’s Black Astronauts in Space

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. While NASA would conduct all non-military space activity, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created in February 1958 to develop space technology for military application. In reviewing the various space flights I have seen areas where the lines are fuzzy…


The new agency was to have a distinctly civilian orientation, encouraging peaceful applications in space scienceSince its establishment, most US space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo Moon landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle.


There have been 833 total number of crewmembers of all 135 space shuttle missions, with some individuals riding multiple times and 14 astronauts killed during the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Of those astronauts, 15 have been African-American, and all have flown on the Space Shuttle missions, begun in 1972, after the Gemini and Apollo programs were completed. Space Shuttle projects involved launching satellites, conducting experiments in zero-gravity, and enabling other countries in Europe, Japan and Russia to participate in the Space program, launching satellites of their own.

Here are the first five black astronauts who went into space.


Guion S. Bluford Jr. was born in 1942. He received a BS in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1964; an MS and PhD in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1978; with a minor in laser physics and a Master in Business Administration from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in 1987. Before becoming an astronaut, Bluford was an officer in the U.S. Air Force, where he remained while assigned to NASA, rising to the rank of Colonel. He flew 144 combat missions, 65 of which were over North Vietnam. Bluford became a NASA astronaut in August 1979 and became the first African-American in space in 1983. He is a veteran of four spaceflights and was a Mission Specialist on STS-8 (1983), completing 98 orbits of the Earth in 145 hours and launching an Indian communications and weather observation satellite STS-61-A (1985) conducting experiments in microgravity, STS-39 (1991) conducting DoD experiments and STS-53 (1992) which launched a DoD satellite.

Ronald E. McNair, Ph.D. was born in 1950, received a BS in physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1971 and a PhD in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. McNair was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978. He flew on STS-41-B aboard Challenger in 1984, becoming the second African American and the first Bahá’í to fly in space. On this mission, the Challenger launched two satellites and included the first untethered spacewalk. Following this mission, McNair was selected for STS-51-L, which launched on January 28, 1986, and was subsequently killed when Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean just 73 seconds after liftoff.

Frederick D. Gregory was born in 1941, received a BS from the United States Air Force Academy in 1964 and a master’s degree in information systems from George Washington University in 1977. During his time in the Air Force, Gregory logged approximately 7,000 hours in more than 50 types of aircraft as a helicopter, fighter and test pilot. He flew 550 combat rescue missions in Vietnam. Selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978. Gregory became the first African-American to pilot a space craft, commanding the orbiter Challenger on mission STS-51B carrying the fully operational European Space Agency’s Spacelab and conducting microgravity experiments. He was then the first African-American to command any space mission with the launch of STS-33 in 1989 on the orbiter Discovery, which carried a classified payload. He then commanded STS-44 on Atlantis which in addition to deploying a Department of Defense satellite, DPS 15, also conducted extensive studies to evaluate medical countermeasures to long duration space flight. After leaving the Astronaut office, Gregory led the agency’s Safety and Mission Assurance effort and later the Office of Space Flight. He retired as NASA’s Deputy Administrator in 2005.


Charles F. Bolden Jr. was Born in 1946, received a BS in electrical science from the United States Naval Academy in 1968 and became a Marine aviator and test pilot. He flew more than 100 sorties into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the A-6A Intruder while assigned to VMA(AW)-533 at Royal Thai Air Base Nam Phong, Thailand, from June 1972 to June 1973. In 1977, he received an MS in systems management from the University of Southern California. Selected by NASA in May 1980. Bolden is a veteran of four space-flights, with over 680 hours in space. Served as Pilot on STS-61C (1986) to deploy a communications satellite, and STS-31 (1990) to lunch the Hubble Space Telescope and Commander on STS-45 (1992) conducting studies in atmospheric chemistry, solar radiation, space plasma physics and ultraviolet astronomy.and STS-60 (1994) also conducting experiments. Bolden was selected as the 12th NASA administrator and first African-American administrator in 2009, leading the agency to achieve NASA’s mission and goals. He retired as NASA administrator in 2017

Mae C. Jemison, M.D. born in 1956, Received a BS in chemical engineering (and fulfilled the requirements for a BA in African and Afro-American studies) from Stanford University in 1977 and a doctorate degree in medicine from Cornell University in 1981. Jemison was selected for the astronaut program in 1987 and was the science Mission Specialist on STS-47 (1992) Spacelab-J with over 190 hours in space. Jemison was a co-investigator of two bone cell research experiments, one of 43 investigations that were done on STS-47. Jemison also conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on herself and six other crew members.

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Black History Month 2019 – #4: NASAs Black Pioneers of the 1960’s

The Space Race began on August 2, 1955, when the Soviet Union responded to the US announcement four days earlier of intent to launch artificial satellites for the International Geophysical Year, by declaring they would also launch a satellite “in the near future”. The Soviet Union beat the US to the first successful launch, with the October 4, 1957, orbiting of Sputnik 1, and later beat the US to have the first human in earth orbit, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. Subsequently, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy proposed the ambitious goal “of landing a man on the Moon by the end of [the 1960s], and returning him safely to the Earth.” At the same time, Kennedy chose federal employment as one of the tools to force integration.


The Space Race created over 200,000 jobs in the Deep South, at the NASA Centers in Alabama (George C. Marshall Space Flight Center), Florida (JFK Space Center), Texas (LBJ Space Center), Mississippi (John C. Stennis Space Center), and Louisiana (Michoud Assembly Facility).


Kennedy placed Vice-President Johnson at the heads of both his National Space Council and the President’s Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity, enabling the vice president to implement the strategy. NASA and its contractors were required to hire blacks, creating upper-level job opportunities that had never been available before to them, well before passage of the Civil Rights Act made equal employment opportunity the law of the land.


Johnson saw the task of bringing social and economic change as beyond the power of the private sector because the region’s low-wage economy encouraged business interests to keep “their workers—both black and white—languishing in ill health, hunger and ignorance,” “Bringing in the full force of federal power was the only way Johnson saw of integrating the South into the mainstream of America’s economic life.” To advance, the region needed well-paying jobs, like those the moonshot could provide, that would require and attract educated and skilled workers. Making sure African-Americans got a share of them would raise both their economic and social standing.


NASA hired Charlie Smoot, called the “first Negro recruiter” in official agency histories, to travel the nation recruiting black engineers and scientists for NASA—a challenging task given their understandable skepticism about moving to NASA’s locations in the Deep South. To provide a supply of talent, Smoot helped organize a co-op program at Southern University, Baton Rouge, in 1963, in which students alternated semesters at school with semesters at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. That brought to NASA Marshall some of the first African-American engineers it employed in the South. Walter Applewhite, Wesley Carter, George Bourda, Tommy Dubone, William Winfield, Frank C. Williams Jr., and Morgan Watson became the embodiment of Johnson’s plan for jobs in the South. Frank Williams helped design the ground-support equipment for the Apollo program. Morgan Watson worked in propulsion, testing the Saturn 1-B, the forerunner of the Saturn V. Three other technicians at Huntsville included Delano Hyder, Richard Hall and Clyde Foster. Foster, on loan from the space agency to all-black Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in Huntsville, established the state’s first degree program in computer science, a curriculum that fed a stream of graduates into MSFC. Foster became director of Marshall’s Equal Opportunity Office.


Before the coop program, the first black engineering technician on record was Julius Montgomery. A linotype operator from Tuskegee, Montgomery was drafted into the Air Force, where he earned a First Class Radiotelephone Operator’s License. This made him attractive to NASA and they hired him in 1959. Montgomery was hired as a range rat. And that means that when a missile misfired, he would go down range with the other guys. And they would find what went wrong, and they would fix it. Montgomery also built missile components, with tasks involving tracking, timing, radar and telemetry. Sometimes Montgomery played hardball and other times, he was a quiet integrator. For example, Montgomery signed up for a training program in 1959 at the new Brevard Engineering College, which at the time leased classrooms in a segregated public school. When the school found out Montgomery signed up for a class there, they threatened to evict the college. Rather than a showdown of some kind, Montgomery agreed to withdraw from the class until the college moved to its own building several months later. Brevard Engineering College is now known as the Florida Institute of Technology, which later named an award in Montgomery’s honor.


In 1961, Edward Dwight became the first African-American slated for space travel. Dwight joined the Air Force in 1953. While in the Air Force, he attended Arizona State and graduated with a BS Aeronautical Engineering in 1957. He next went to USAF Test Pilot School, graduating with an MS in Astronautics – 1961. 1962 – US Aerospace Research Pilot School. Dwight became famous, with his picture on the cover of several black magazines. However, he faced severe discrimination from many of his fellow trainees as well as from government officials.  Despite facing discrimination from other astronauts, Dwight persevered until the assassination of President Kennedy, after which government officials created a threatening atmosphere and he was assigned to be a liaison officer in Germany to a non-existent German test pilot school. This eventually prompted him to resign from the Air Force.


Two other noteworthy engineers, who didn’t work in the Deep South, were George Carruthers and Frank Crossley.


In 1964, George Carruthers began employment for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., where his work focused on far ultraviolet astronomy. Previously he had obtained a BS in Aeronautical Engineering, an MS in Nuclear Engineering and a PhD in Aeronautical and Astronomical Engineering from the University of Illinois. 1969 was the year he received a patent for his invention, the “Image Converter,” an ultraviolet camera/spectograph which detected electromagnetic radiation in short wavelengths, and in 1970, he made the first examination of molecular hydrogen in space. Carruthers’s camera was used by NASA when it launched Apollo 16 in 1972.


Frank Crossley was a man of many firsts. He was one of the first black officers in the Navy, and one out of 1500 in the Navy Officer Training Program serving as a Navy ensign in the Philippines at the close of WWII. He was also the first African American to obtain a PhD in metallurgical engineering. And he was one of the first African-Americans to work as an engineer for a NASA contractor. And finally after obtaining his PhD from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1950, the president of the college insisted that he be hired at the IIT Research Institute. During his tenure at IITRI, he began development of a new class of high-strength titanium alloys initially intended for use on submarines. The next nearly decade and a half saw him working as a senior scientist, at which point he transferred to Lockheed Missiles & Space Company, in 1966, where he worked as a senior member of the research laboratory for eight years. He continued his groundbreaking work, contributing to the advancement of titanium technologies in the aerospace industry. After Lockheed, he worked at GenCorp AeroJet, retiring from there in 1991. Over the course of his career, he received seven patents and authored over 60 technical papers.


I wish there was more information about all of these men. Much of it comes from a book: “We Could Not Fail”, strangely, written by two white guys, one of whom did his master’s thesis on NASA and the Civil Rights Movement. The book spawned several articles, but by and large, these men did not make it into any of the black history sites such as or

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Black History Month 2019 #4 – The West Area Computers

When I first saw Hidden Figures, I figured that NASA was a progressive organization at the forefront of integration. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many of NASAs centers were in the deep South. Florida, Alabama, Texas. And they did NOT want to integrate. Not only did they claim that there were no blacks who could excel in the sciences, they also refused to hire in the non-technical areas. So, the few African-Americans who made it into NASA were beyond stellar. They were amazing.

I’m going to break the “NASA report” into three sections. First I’ll cover the West Area Computers. Then 10 trailblazers of the 1970’s, then our black astronauts.

And now: The West Area Computers.

Before there was NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, there was NACA, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics. Built in 1917, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory  was the headquarters for NACA which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the space race gained speed.

The term “computer” originally referred to people, usually women, who performed complex mathematical calculations. Computers have a long history dating back to the 18th century when computers would assist with astronomical and military calculations. In the 20th century, the role of computers became a gendered role as women processed large-scale data that would undergird the work of male engineers and scientists. In the late 19th and early 20thcentury, female “computers” at Harvard University analyzed star photos to learn more about their basic properties. These women made discoveries still fundamental to astronomy today.

Ushered into the Langley in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, the women who were human computers freed the male engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed. Current estimates give the number of women computers to be in the thousands.

The first black computers didn’t set foot at Langley until the 1940s. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computers, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NACA history. African American women with degrees in mathematics began to be hired for these positions. Many of them came from nearby HBCUs such as Hampton University and Virginia State University.

Black computers were segregated to the “West Area” while white computers worked in the “East Area’, often with no knowledge of the black women working in the West. The East and West areas were a mile apart.

The West Area Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, and more aerodynamic.

The work of a computer required skill and judgment. Computers gathered data by reading pressure values from manometers placed in the wind tunnel. Depending on the application, the data were smoothed, plotted, and interpolated. Data reduction and analysis were carried out with the help of calculators, slide rules, planimeters, drafting tools, and other instruments. The women in these roles knew how to organize computational work and how to do so quickly without making mistakes. This knowledge was unique to them.

The West Area was constructed in 1940. The West Area cafeteria, Building #21 had opposite entrances for the Colored Dining Room and the White Dining Room. The buildings that the West Area computers worked in did not have bathrooms at all, and you had to go to the dining room to go to the bathroom.

Computers were assigned to different projects in different buildings. In the event that the workload was too heavy for the white computers, black computers would join the team. However, in general, the West Area Computers worked on the less interesting, more tedious work. The West Area Computers who were assigned to teams were generally respected. Jackson remembers doing calculations on a Supersonic Tunnel. On one occasion an engineer disputed her calculations. When she pushed back, he realized that he had given her the wrong data. And apologized.

As the years passed and the center evolved, the West Area Computers became engineers, (electronic) computer programmers, the first black managers at Langley and trajectory whizzes whose work propelled the first American, John Glenn, into orbit in 1962.

Being a West Area computer was a unique opportunity, and well paying. White and black computers earned similar wages, even though they were 40% less than what the men were paid. Their wages of $1400-$2000/year were nearly double what a school teacher could earn in the 1940’s.

When Margot Lee Shetterly decided to write her book, “Hidden Figures”, it was born of the knowledge that the West Area Computers existed, but it was so downplayed that there was barely any trace of them by the time she began her research, in part because many of them only stayed a few years and then left to raise families. As a child, Shetterly knew these brilliant mathematicians as her girl scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors and as parents of schoolmates  The most well-known computers are the ones who stayed:

Mary Jackson, born in 1921, had both a Math and Physical Science degree from Hampton Institute. Hired as a computer in 1951, she was involved with wind tunnels and flight experiments. Her job was to extract the relevant data from experiments and flight tests. After two years in the computing pool, Mary Jackson received an offer to work for engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. Czarnecki offered Mary hands-on experience conducting experiments in the facility, and eventually suggested that she enter a training program that would allow her to earn a promotion from mathematician to engineer. Trainees had to take graduate level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. Because the classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, however, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. Never one to flinch in the face of a challenge, Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. That same year, she co-authored her first report, Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the rule rather than the exception for the center’s female professionals, she made a final, dramatic career change, leaving engineering and taking a demotion to fill the open position of Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Katherine Johnson, born in 1918, graduated from high school at age 13 and from West Virginia State College at 18. In 1953, Johnson joined West Area Computers. She began her career working with data from flight tests, but her life quickly changed after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite in 1957. Johnson joined the Maneuver Loads Branch of the Flight Research Division. There she analyzed data from flight tests. In 1960, she became the first woman in the division to receive author credit on a paper titled “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite over a Selected Earth Position.” Some of her math equations were used in a lecture series compendium called Notes on Space Technology. These lectures were given by engineers that later formed the Space Task Group, NACA’s section on space travel. For the Mercury missions, Johnson did trajectory analysis for Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission in 1961, and (at John Glenn’s request) did the same job for his orbital mission in 1962. Despite Glenn’s trajectory being planned by computers, Glenn reportedly wanted Johnson herself to run through the equations to make sure they were safe.


Dorothy Vaughn, born in 1910, joined Langley in 1943. Vaughan became the first black NACA supervisor in 1949 and made sure that her employees received promotions or pay raises if merited. The Section Head title gave Dorothy rare centerwide visibility, and she collaborated with other computers on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing, and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that she personally handle the work.  Her segregation was ended in 1958 when NACA became NASA, at which point NASA created an analysis and computation division. Vaughan was an expert programmer in FORTRAN, a prominent computer language of the day, and also contributed to a satellite-launching rocket called Scout (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test). She retired from NASA in 1971.


Mechanical engineer Christine Darden was hired as a computer in 1967. She entered Hampton Institute when she was only 15 and majored in education because of the lack of prospects of finding a job in mathematics for an African American woman. Later, she would take study physics and mathematics at Virginia State College, and earn an M.S. in mathematics in 1967. In the 1970s, electronic computers were being introduced on a wider scale. Darden was one of the first people that worked on developing computer programs. She also asserted herself and entered the engineering world, researching sonic boom minimization. In 1983, she received her Ph.D. in engineering. By the time she retired, in 2007, she had authored more than 50 papers on supersonic boom and aircraft design, and reached the senior executive level at NASA – the first African American to do so.

Kathryn Peddrew, born in 1922, was a chemistry major who applied to NACA but was moved into the computing division when they saw that she was black. She eventually conducted research on balance at NASA from 1943-1986 in the Instrument Research Division.


Annie Easley, born in 1933, started out as a computer at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Hired in 1955, she became a programmer when computers became machines, honing her skills in programming languages like FORTRAN and SOAP. In the 1970s, as well as daring to wear trousers to work, she made another radical choice and went back to college. She had joined NACA with just two years of pharmacy coursework on her resume. She completed a mathematics degree in 1977 while working 40-hour weeks. Over the years, Easley produced code that went on to be used in renewable energy research, including batteries for early hybrid vehicles, as well as for the high-thrust liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen Centaur rocket used to get space capsules into orbit.

Miriam Mann started work as a Langley computer in 1943, thinking she would stay only as long as the war effort required her. But the war came and went, and Mann stayed – unlike the sign in  the cafeteria. It read “Colored Computers” and relegated the black women of West Computing to a lone rear table. For Mann, this was too much. She took the sign away. Although a replacement materialized before long, the little rebellion shook up the department. She was still at Langley when the first electronic computers were installed, and when West Computing was disbanded, she partnered with an engineer working on the mechanics of space docking maneuvers. She stayed until 1966, when her health failed her. And although by then the “Colored Computers” sign was long gone, Mann’s story was passed down through her family and through the other women of West Area Computing: a story to inspire and empower.

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Black History Month #3 – The Manhattan Project


The discovery of nuclear fission by German chemists in 1938, and its theoretical explanation made the development of an atomic bomb a theoretical possibility. In a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in August 1939, a number of prominent physicists including Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, warned of Nazi Germany’s efforts to produce “extremely powerful bombs of a new type,” and urged the United States government to engage in research that would produce the weapon first.  The Roosevelt Administration heeded the warning and on October 9, 1941, President Roosevelt approved a crash research program to build an atomic bomb in a program which was often referred to as the Manhattan Project. Approximately 130,000 Americans worked on the project with the vast majority serving as construction workers and plant operators at newly created communities such as Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington.  Drawing on natural resources from around the world including critically important uranium from the Belgian Congo, scientists and technicians, plant operators, military personnel, and construction workers labored around the clock in secrecy to complete the project and build this weapon of mass destruction before Nazi Germany completed its own atomic bomb.  Much of the initial research on the U.S. bomb was done in existing laboratory facilities at major universities including Columbia, Princeton, and the largest of the atomic research centers, the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. In 1941, Executive Order 8802 was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 25, 1941, to prohibit ethnic or racial discrimination in the federal government. African-Americans flocked to the manufacturing sites of the Manhattan Project as construction workers, laborers, janitors and domestic workers because government jobs paid so well. Over 5,000 African Americans worked in Hanford; over 7,000 worked in Oak Ridge. But they encountered horrific discrimination when it came to housing and basic sustenance. It was a trade-off that many chose to bear.

Although there were very few black scientists and technicians working on the Manhattan project, we were a part of it. I will highlight EIGHTEEN of them, including two women, here.

  1. Ernest Wilkins was born in 1923. Wilkins entered the University of Chicago in 1936 at the age of 13, becoming one of the youngest students to ever attend the university. After completing his Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at 17, he continued his academic studies, receiving a Master’s degree the next year. In 1942, at the age of 19, Wilkins became the seventh African American to obtain a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the university. After graduation, Wilkins taught mathematics at the Tuskegee Institute before joining the University of Chicago Met Lab in 1944. Working in collaboration with Arthur Compton and Enrico Fermi, Wilkins researched methods for producing fissionable nuclear materials, focusing in particular on plutonium-239. He did not learn the purpose of his research until the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. After the war, Wilkins worked as a mathematician for the American Optical Company in Buffalo, New York designing and testing optical techniques for microscopes, telescopes, and other ophthalmologic uses. He also continued his academic pursuits and earned both a BA and MA degree in mechanical engineering from New York University. In 1970, Wilkins became the Distinguished Professor of Applied Mathematical Physics at Howard University, where he founded the university’s Ph.D. program in mathematics.


  1. Lawrence A. Knox was born in 1906. Knox attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine for his undergraduate schooling.  He majored in chemistry and played on the school football team.  He graduated in 1928 and began teaching chemistry at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.  After teaching at Morehouse for two years, Knox attended Stanford and in 1931 attained his Master’s degree. Knox then began teaching at the Agriculture and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro, and in 1933 he transferred to North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham.  In 1936 he took another break from teaching and began working for his doctorate at Harvard.  In 1940 he achieved a PhD in organic Chemistry and went back to teaching at North Carolina College.   In 1944 he left his job at North Carolina College to contribute to the research of quinine (used today to treat malaria) for the Division of War Research.  Knox’s work on quinine was meant to be used in the Manhattan project for field research on the effects of atomic bomb explosions.  Knox remained at Columbia University in New York until the end of the war in 1945. With the end of his time at Columbia University, Knox became a research chemist for Nopco Chemists in Harrison, New Jersey.  In his three years there he was granted at least four patents.  In 1948 became the Resident Director at the Hickrill Chemical Research Foundation in Katonah, New York and remained in that post until the foundation folded in the late 1950s.


  1. William Jacob Knox, brother of Lawrence Knox, was born in 1904. Knox attended Harvard University, graduating in 1925. Knox earned his Master’s degree and his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1929 and 1935 respectively.  From 1935 to 1942, Knox was a professor in the chemistry department at North Carolina A&T College.  He left in 1942 to become chair of the chemistry department at Talladega College.  One year later, however, he joined a team of scientists at Columbia University who were devising a way to separate the two uranium isotopes using gaseous diffusion, a complex process that made use of uranium hexafluoride, an extremely corrosive material.  Knox also holds the distinction of being the only black supervisor on the project. Because of his work on corrosive substances, he was hired as a research scientist for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York in 1945.  During his time at Kodak he received patents at a rate of nearly one per year, totaling 21 patents in 25 years.   Knox retired from Kodak in 1970.  Knox briefly returned to teaching at North Carolina A&T, remaining there until his permanent retirement in 1973.
  2. Samuel Proctor Massie was born in 1919. Massie graduated from Dunbar High School in Little Rock at the age of 13.  At age 18, he earned his bachelor’s in science in chemistry and was summa cum laude from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 1937.  He earned his master’s degree in chemistry from Fisk University in Nashville in 1940 when he was 21 years old and went on to complete his Ph.D. at Iowa State University. As he neared the completion of his doctorate in 1942, Massie lost his draft deferment.  When he was about to be drafted in his home state of Arkansas, his major professor at Iowa State, Henry Gilman, who was already working on the Manhattan Project, assigned Massie to his research team. Massie performed research at Iowa State University’s Ames Laboratory in the development of uranium isotopes from 1942-1946. After the war, Massie finished his doctorate and went on to teach chemistry at Langston University in Oklahoma, where he became the chemistry department chair. He later taught in and chaired the chemistry department at Fisk University, too, and served as an associate program director at the National Science Foundation. Massie served as the president of North Carolina College, and in 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as the first African-American professor to serve at the United States Naval Academy.  Samuel Proctor Massie is noted for his work on drugs to combat cancer, mental diseases, malaria, meningitis, and herpes.  He received a patent for work he did combating gonorrhea. In his honor, the Department of Energy created the Samuel P. Massie Chairs of Excellence program for African-American students in 1993.


  1. Moddie Daniel Taylor was born in 1912, and attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri where he majored in chemistry.  Taylor graduated in 1935 as the valedictorian of his class. Taylor began his teaching career at Lincoln University the same year, working as an instructor until 1939 and then as an assistant professor from 1939 to 1941 while enrolled in the University of Chicago graduate program in chemistry.  He received an M.S. from the University in 1939 and a Ph.D. in 1943. Taylor went to work on the Manhattan Project in 1945 at the University of Chicago.  His worked as an associate chemist for the project for the next two years, involved in analyzing rare earth metals, elements of which are the products of oxidized metals and have special properties and important industrial uses.  His contributions to the project earned him a Certificate of Merit from Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson in 1946. In 1946 Taylor returned to Lincoln University for two years before becoming a chemistry professor at Howard University and the chair of the department in 1969.  His research at Howard included the study of the vapor phase of dissociation of some carboxylic acids, which resulted in a grant in 1956 from the American Academy of Arts and Science. In 1960, Taylor’s textbook, First Principles of Chemistry, was published.   It soon became one of the major texts in use in colleges and universities throughout the United States.


  1. Sherman Carter was born in 1911. in 1936 Carter began his studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he majored in biology. After graduation in 1940 Carter attended Columbia University’s Teachers College as well as the College of the City of New York. In 1943 Carter was hired at Columbia University in New York to work in tandem with the University of Chicago studying nuclear fission. This project was set up by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the famed Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb.  While at Columbia, Carter worked for Isidor Isaac Rabi, who led the Columbia group of scientists.  That group included William and Lawrence Knox. After the end of the Manhattan Project, Carter and his family remained in Harlem.


  1. Harold Delaney was born in 1919. Delaney studied chemistry at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and earned his B.S. and M.A. degrees in 1941 and 1943, respectively. After completing his M.A. degree, Delaney worked as a chemist on the Manhattan Project between 1943 and 1945 at the University of Chicago. After his appointment at the University of Chicago ended in 1945, Delaney worked as an assistant professor of chemistry at North Carolina Agricultural &Technical University in Greensboro, North Carolina from 1945 to 1948. He later returned to Howard University to complete his doctoral degree and became one of the first two graduate students to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1958 from Howard. Delaney held several academic and industrial positions over his career, including serving as a faculty member at Morgan State University in Baltimore for 21 years (1948-1969) and working as a research chemist at E.I. Dupont de Nemours & Co for three years (1966-1969).



  1. Harold Evans was born in 1907. Evans attended Michigan State University for his undergraduate degree beginning in 1927; he majored in applied science and graduated in 1931. In 1932 he received his master’s degree in science from Michigan State, with his thesis on the Benzylation of Thymol, a chemical process. After graduating, he taught chemistry at Georgia State Normal College (now Georgia College) for the 1935-1936 school year. Evans held a series of odd jobs between 1936 and 1941 when he moved to Illinois and was hired by the federal government’s Kankakee Ordnance Works (otherwise known as Illinois Ordnance Works).  He stayed there until 1943 working as a chemist on projects designed to support Great Britain until the U.S. officially entered World War II. From 1941 to 1943 he worked on U.S. military projects. In 1943 Evans was hired as an associate chemist at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Lab, which after World War II evolved into the Argonne National Laboratory. While with the Met Lab, Evans worked on nuclear fission projects. Evans continued to work at Argonne well after the end of World War II, researching chemical reactions and relations including those specifically pertaining to radioactive elements. He remained with Argonne until his retirement.


  1. Ralph Garner-Chavis was born in 1922. He began college at the Case School of Applied Science in 1939 which later became part of Case Western Reserve University.  Gardner was unimpressed with the school and transferred to the University of California, Berkley before finally graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in Chemistry in 1943. After earning his degree, Gardner-Chavis began work on the Manhattan Project as a research assistant at the University of Chicago’s Met Lab. He worked closely with atomic scientist Enrico Fermi and radioactivity scientist Nathan Sugarman, focusing primarily on classified plutonium research critical to the development of the “Fat Man” implosion bomb. After he left the Project in 1947, despite his contributions to atomic research and development, Gardner-Chavis was unable to find an academic or professional position in his field, so he worked as a waiter for two years. In 1949, he became a research chemist and project leader for Standard Oil Company in Cleveland, Ohio where he designed chemical processes to refine gasoline for nearly twenty years. He simultaneously earned a Masters and Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. Gardner-Chavis went on to lead Cleveland State University’s Chemistry Department, where he taught full-time from 1968 to 1985.


  1. Jasper Brown Jeffries Born in 1912, Jeffries earned his B.S. degree in 1933 from HBCU West Virginia State College. After earning his B.S. degree, Jeffries briefly attended the University of Illinois (1933-35). He later earned his M.S. degree in physical sciences from the University of Chicago in 1940. After completing his M.S. degree, Jeffries worked as a physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory between 1943 and 1946 at the University of Chicago. Jeffries held several academic and industrial positions after his appointment on the Manhattan Project. From 1946 to 1949, he served as a Professor and Chair in the Department of Physics at North Carolina Agricultural &Technical University in Greensboro, North Carolina, joining his colleague Delaney who was a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry at this time. For almost a decade, Jeffries worked as a Senior Engineer for the Control Instrument Company (1951-59) located in New York. From 1963 to 1971, Jeffries worked as an Assistant Professor of Mathematics at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y. In 1971, Jeffries was promoted to Professor and became Chair of the department.


  1. Lloyd Albert Quarterman Born in 1918, Quarterman attended St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina where he developed a reputation as a scholar and star football player.  After receiving his bachelor’s degree from St. Augustine’s in 1943, he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project.  Though he was only a junior chemist on the project, Quarterman had the opportunity to work closely with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago and with Albert Einstein at Columbia University. Quarterman was a member of the team of scientists who isolated the isotope of uranium (U 238) necessary for the fission process, which was essential to the creation of the atom bomb.  Once the war ended, he continued to work at the University of Chicago’s laboratory hidden beneath the campus football stadium during the war and later rebuilt in a Chicago suburb and renamed the Argonne National Laboratory.  After the war, Quarterman returned to school and earned a master of science from Northwestern University in 1952. He would return to Argonne and remain at the national laboratory for the next thirty years.



  1. Robert  Johnson Omohundro was born in 1921. Omohundro earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in physics from Howard University. After graduation he worked as a radio tester with the Western Electric Company. Omohundro’s contribution to the atom bomb project was his work as a mass spectroscopist.  Mass spectrometry (MS) is a common technique that scientists use to help identify particles in samples by their mass. During World War II Omohundro, who worked at a secret facility in Arizona, was also responsible for developing devices to locate and measure radiation emissions from atomic warheads. These devices were used long after World War II by the International Atomic Energy Agency in airports around the world to detect clandestine transfers of fissionable material and portable neutron detectors. From1948 to 1984, Omohundro applied the techniques of nuclear physics honed during his work on the Manhattan Project to developing technology at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.  He was noted for his development of devices that prevent the propagation of plutonium at airfields.  In addition, he continued his World War II research by designing more advanced devices for radiation detection from nuclear warheads.  In 1963 and 1971, he obtained two patents in the field of nuclear physics.


  1. Edwin Roberts Russell was born in 1913; Russell earned his B.S. degree in 1935 from HBCU Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. Russell continued his education at Howard University where he earned an M.S. degree in chemistry in 1937.  Russell worked as an instructor in the Chemistry Department at Howard University from 1936 to 1942 before entering the University of Chicago to pursue a Ph.D. in surface chemistry. Russell arrived at the moment the University became the center for Manhattan Project research.  For the next five years (1942-1947), Russell worked as a chemist at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Russell became one of the scientists directly involved in the production of atomic energy. His efforts focused on isolating plutonium from uranium, a painstakingly slow process which was necessary to build the atomic bomb. After World War II, Russell served as Chair and Professor of the Division of Science at Allen University in Columbia South Carolina from 1947 to 1953.  He then was employed as a Research Chemist at E.I. DuPont’s Savannah River Nuclear Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina from 1953 to 1976. While working at DuPont, Russell focused on a number of projects including the treatment of radioactive waste and wrote several classified publications in the field of nuclear energy.


  1. Benjamin Franklin Scott was born in 1922. Scott earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1942 from HBCU Morehouse College. Scott continued his education at the University of Chicago where he earned a Master of Science degree in 1950. Between the years of 1943-1946, Scott worked as a chemist at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Scott held numerous positions after his appointment, including working as a subcontractor and manufacturer of Geiger counters from 1946-50 while finishing his master’s degree at the University of Chicago. Scott worked as a Radio-chemist and later Chief Chemist for the Nuclear Instrument Company (1949-63). The Nuclear Instrument Company was renamed the Nuclear-Chicago Corporation (Chicago, Illinois) in 1954. In 1963, Scott began working as a Technical Director for the New England Nuclear (NEN) Assay Corporation


  1. James Forde was born in 1927. He was a lab assistant at the Nash Garage Building at Columbia University during the Manhattan Project. Forde was hired onto the project in 1944 by the Union Carbide and Carbon Company to clean test tubes as scientists worked to develop the gaseous diffusion process. He remembered, “You did clean-up work, you cleaned the beakers and other materials the scientists used. The main job I had was cleaning tubes in a sulfuric acid bath. I did not know what they were for…[When] I saw the headline where we had dropped the bomb, I said, ‘Oh, my God. That is what I was working on!’” He was laid off after the war, while the white scientists working in the building were transferred to Los Alamos, New Mexico. He went to Brooklyn College and began working at the Columbia Broadcasting System, later earning his master’s degree in public administration. He served as the director of health services for San Diego County and worked with several local organizations to improve minority and low-income health care.


  1. Blanche Lawrence worked as a research assistant in the Chicago Met Lab’s health division. Lawrence received her bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University. She was the widow of Tuskegee Airman Capt. Erwin Lawrence of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, who died on a strafing mission over an enemy airfield near Athens, Greece. After the war, she continued to serve the country as a technician at Argonne National Laboratory. She became a junior biochemist within four years of beginning work there.



  1. Carolyn Beatrice Parker was born in 1917. Parker earned her bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1938 and went on to receive her master’s in mathematics from the University of Michigan before joining the Manhattan Project in Dayton, Ohio. Parker worked as a physicist on the Dayton Project, which was a part of the Manhattan Project. The Dayton Project was a research and development project to produce polonium during World War II, as part of the larger Manhattan Project. Her work involved polonium separation used for the detonation of the bomb. She earned a second master’s degree in physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology after the war.  She is the first African-American woman known to have gained a postgraduate degree in physics. Parker died of leukemia at age 47 while working toward her doctorate. In 2008, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health determined the disease was an occupational risk of working with polonium.


  1. George Warren Reed was born in 1920; Reed received a BS degree from Howard University in 1942 and two years later an M.S. Both degrees were in chemistry.   At the Chicago Met Lab, Reed worked on obtaining enough fissionable uranium to produce and sustain a nuclear reaction. “We didn’t know it at the time, but we were developing the atomic bomb,” he said. “I was trained as an organic chemist and we were purifying uranium, but at that time I was totally in the dark; we didn’t even talk to the people in the lab next to us.” His post-Manhattan project research continued in this area where he examined distinct patterns in radiation produced from uranium and plutonium at various stages. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in Illinois in 1952, after his work with the Manhattan Project. After World War II, Reed held a number of positions and worked, for some time, outside of nuclear chemistry, most notably during his tenure with the Meteoritical Society from 1970 to 1972.  He was also on the lunar sample planning team with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1972 to 1980. After the first moon landing Reed was given the opportunity to analyze the sample of moon rock in a nuclear reactor; he eventually concluded that the rock contained minerals not found on earth. Reed never strayed too far from the University of Chicago however, as he held positions in the chemistry division with the Argonne National Laboratory; a scientific research subsidiary of the university, first as an associate chemist from 1952 to 1968 and eventually as a senior scientist beginning in 1968.

I am especially proud to know that so many of us were a part of this massive undertaking which, along with the race for space, was one of the most research intensive projects that the US had ever undertaken. A lot of people don’t know much about the Manhattan Project because it was classified. But I hope you have learned a bit more about the US efforts during WWII.

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Black History Month 2019 – #2: STEM in the 20th Century

The Civil War ended in 1865, so this next group of eleven STEM superstars were primarily all born free. Crops of freedman schools opened up throughout the South following the Civil War, followed by the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Some of our superstars, educated in white schools in the North, taught at these universities. Others blazed their own trails in private industry.

  1. George Washington Carver is well known as the Tuskegee Institute scientist who found over 100 uses for peanuts (but not peanut butter). There was much more to him than that. Carver was born a slave on an unknown date before the Civil War ended. Throughout his early life, people were struck by his determination to learn and encouraged him to pursue an education. Rejected from a Kansas University for his race, he settled onto a homestead for several years, but then went to Iowa State University for his bachelors and masters in botany. In 1891Booker T. Washington recruited Carver as head of the agriculture department at Tuskegee Institute where Carver stayed for 47 years. Carver taught methods of crop rotation, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency. Carver designed a mobile classroom to take education out to farmers. He called it a “Jesup wagon” after the New York financier and philanthropist Morris Ketchum Jesup, who provided funding to support the program. Carver’s work attracted world-wide renown. In 1916, Carver was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England, one of only a handful of Americans at that time to receive this honor. 1n 1921, when China was undercutting peanut prices, Carver was asked to speak before Congress on the need for tariffs. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 was passed including one on imported peanuts. Carver’s testifying to Congress made him widely known as a public figure. During the last two decades of his life, Carver seemed to enjoy his celebrity status. He was often on the road promoting Tuskegee University, peanuts, and racial harmony. Although he only published six agricultural bulletins after 1922, he published articles in peanut industry journals and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Professor Carver’s Advice”. Business leaders came to seek his help, and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt—met with him, and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks. In 1937, Carver attended two chemurgy conferences, an emerging field in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, concerned with developing new products from crops. He was invited by Henry Ford to speak at the conference held in Dearborn, Michigan, and they developed a friendship. That year Carver’s health declined, and Ford later installed an elevator at the Tuskegee dormitory where Carver lived, so that the elderly man would not have to climb stairs. Upon returning home one day, Carver took a bad fall down a flight of stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who took him to a hospital. Carver died January 5, 1943, at the age of 78 from complications (anemia) resulting from this fall.
  2. Charles Henry Turner was a zoologist, born two years after the end of the Civil War in 1867, in Cincinnati, OH. After graduating from high school as class valedictorian, he attended the University of Cincinnati for his bachelors and master’s degrees in biology. He taught at the HBCU Clark College in Atlanta, GA for 12 years, and then went back to school. He was the first African-American to receive a PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1907. Although he spent the rest of his career teaching at a high school in Missouri, he published more than 40 research papers. He pioneered research techniques in the study of animal behavior and made several important discoveries that advanced our understanding of the natural world. Among his most notable achievements, Turner was the first person to discover that insects can hear and alter behavior based on previous experience. He showed that insects were capable of learning, illustrating (in two of his most famous research projects) that honey bees can see in color and recognize patterns. Turner died of heart failure in 1923
  3. William Hunter Dammond, born in 1873, is not well known, but he was the first African-American graduate of the Western University of Pennsylvania (which later became the University of Pittsburgh). Dammond graduated with honors from the university in 1893, with a degree in civil engineering. After assorted professional adventures, Dammond moved to Michigan to work as a bridge engineer. Once there, he hit his stride, inventing an electrical signaling system for railway engineers to recognize the approach of another train and receiving a patent for it. In 1906, he was issued another patent for a “safety system” for railway operation.
  4. Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky in 1877, the son of slaves. He worked as a handyman as a teenager and by 1895 was busy repairing sewing machines, figuring out how things worked, and how to fix them. In 1907 Morgan opened a sewing machine and shoe repair shop. By 1910 he started inventing things. In 1916, he won fame from rescuing workers trapped in a water intake tunnel using a smoke hood that he invented and patented in 1912. It was fashioned to protect his eyes from smoke and featuring a series of air tubes that hung near the ground to draw clean air beneath the rising smoke. Meanwhile, he had his own company for hair care products including his patented hair straightening cream, a hair coloring, and a hair straightening comb. In 1922, he filed a patent for a traffic control device with a third warning light. Morgan sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000.  Morgan was also an activist. In 1908, he co-founded the Cleveland Association of Colored Men, a group with the mission of improving economic and social conditions within the African American community. He was a member of the NAACP and donated money to Historically Black Colleges and Universities colleges. In 1920, founded the Cleveland Call, a weekly newspaper and, in 1938, subsequently participated in its merger that created the Cleveland Call and Post , which still exists today.  Last, Morgan was a member of the Prince Hall Freemasons.
  5. Richard Spikes was born in the Indian Territory which became Oklahoma in 1878. Very little is known about him except his patents. Over the course of his lifetime, Spikes developed numerous inventions or innovations including:
  • railroad semaphore (1906)
  • beer keg tap (1910)
  • self-locking rack for billiard cues (1910)
  • automatic car washer (1913)
  • automobile directional signals (1913)
  • continuous contact trolley pole (1919)
  • combination milk bottle opener and cover (1926)
  • method and apparatus for obtaining average samples and temperature of tank liquids (1931)
  • automatic gear shift (1932)
  • transmission and shifting thereof (1933)
  • automatic shoe shine chair (1939)
  • multiple barrel machine gun (1940)
  • horizontally swinging barber chair (1950)
  • automatic safety brake (1962)

Of all these innovations, the best-known are those related to automotive technology. Spikes’ gear shifting device aimed to keep the gears for various speeds in constant mesh, enhancing the turn-of-the-century invention of the automatic transmission. His automatic brake safety system was also significant; according to the patent application, it provided provide a reserve braking action in case of damage to the normal braking means and is still used in some buses as a fail-safe means of stopping the vehicle. Spikes inventions were welcome to major companies. His beer keg tap was purchased by Milwaukee Brewing Company and the automobile directional signals which were first introduced in the Pierce Arrow soon became standard in all automobiles. For his innovative designs of transmission and gear-shifting devices, Spikes received over $100,000.00 – an enormous sum for a Black man in the 1930s.

6. George Biddle Kelley was born in 1884 in Troy, NY. Kelley attended the Troy Military Academy, a military preparatory school. He studied at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute before entering the College of Civil Engineering at Cornell University in 1905, where he graduated in 1908.  He became the first African-American engineer registered in the state of New York. Among other endeavors, he was employed by the New York Engineering Department, where he worked on the Barge Canal, a collection of state waterways, during the 1920s. The accomplished engineer dedicated to furthering education in young people has another important credit to his name: He was a founding member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the oldest black Greek fraternal organization.

7. Earnest Everett Just was born in Charleston, SC in 1883. At the age of 16, Just enrolled at the Meriden, New Hampshire, college-preparatory high school Kimball Union Academy,  completing the four-year program in only three years and graduating in 1903 with the highest grades in his class.Just went on to graduate magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.Just won special honors in zoology, and distinguished himself in botany, history, and sociology as well. He was also honored as a Rufus Choate scholar for two years and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.Just was also a candidate to deliver a commencement speech, but was not chosen because the faculty “decided it would be a faux pas to allow the only black in the graduating class to address the crowd of parents, alumni, and benefactors. It would have made too glaring the fact that Just had won just about every prize imaginable. Just accepted a teaching position at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1907, Just first began teaching rhetoric and English, fields somewhat removed from his specialty. By 1909, however, he was teaching not only English but also Biology. In 1910, he was put in charge of a newly formed biology department by Howard’s president, Wilbur P. Thirkield and, in 1912, he became head of the new Department of Zoology… On November 17, 1911, Ernest Just and three Howard University students established the Omega Psi Phi fraternity on the campus of Howard. Not long after beginning his appointment at Howard, Just was introduced to Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago. Lillie, who was also director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, invited Just to spend the summer of 1909 as his research assistant at the MBL. At the laboratory, Just realized that a doctorate in the sciences was key to his success and he began a program of self-study at the University of Chicago and later earned a doctorate in 1916.  After completing his doctorate Just published 50 scientific papers. Just was known at Woods Hole and beyond for his uncanny ability to coax marine invertebrate embryos to develop normally, and many sought his advice on the proper handling of marine animal eggs and embryos. He compiled a set of indices of normal development based mainly on the timing and quality of fertilization envelope separation, allowing him to predict with great certainty whether or not development would be normal for a given egg. He published two influential books, Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Mammals (1922) and Biology of the Cell Surface (1939). Despite his Ph.D., Just could not find work at any major American university.  He moved to Europe and continued his research in Naples, Italy.  In 1930, however, Just became the first American to be invited to conduct research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Germany.  His research ended when the Nazis took control of Germany in 1933.  Just relocated to Paris, France to continue his research.  in 1940, the Nazis invaded the region around Paris, including Roscoff, and Just was forced to leave. He returned to the United States and Howard University. In 1941, however, he fell tragically ill with pancreatic cancer, and, by the end of October, he died. For all of you biologists out there, I give a reference to his research:

8. Alice Augusta Ball was born in 1982. After earning undergraduate degrees in pharmaceutical chemistry (1912) and pharmacy (1914) from the University of Washington, Alice Ball transferred to the College of Hawaii (now known as the University of Hawaii) and became the very first African American and the very first woman to graduate with a M.S. degree in chemistry in 1915. She was offered a teaching and research position there and became the institution’s very first woman chemistry instructor. She was only 23 years old. As a laboratory researcher, Ball worked extensively to develop a successful treatment for those suffering from Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Her research led her to create the first injectable leprosy treatment using oil from the chaulmoogra tree, which up until then, was only a moderately successful topical agent that was used in Chinese and Indian medicine. Ball successfully isolated the oil into fatty acid components of different molecular weights allowing her to manipulate the oil into a water soluble injectable form. Ball’s scientific rigor resulted in a highly successful method to alleviate leprosy symptoms, later known as the “Ball Method,” that was used on thousands of infected individuals for over thirty years until sulfone drugs were introduced. Tragically, Ball died on December 31, 1916 at the young age of 24 after complications resulting from inhaling chlorine gas in a lab teaching accident.

9. Frederick McKinley Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a young man, Jones began working as a mechanic’s helper at the R.C. Crothers Garage in Cincinnati.  Jones would spend much of his time observing the mechanics as they worked on cars, taking in as much information as possible.   These observations, along with an insatiable appetite for learning through reading helped Jones develop an incredible base of knowledge about automobiles and their inner workings. During World War I, Jones was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and served in France as an electrician. While serving, he rewired his camp for electricity, telephone, and telegraph service.  In 1919, after being discharged by the Army, he moved to Hallock, Minnesota where he began his study of electronics, eventually building a transmitter for a local radio station. Over the next few years he would invent more and more innovative machines.  When one of the doctors he worked for complained that he had to wait for patients to come into his office for x-ray exams, Jones created a portable x-ray machine that could be taken to the patient. Unfortunately, like many of his early inventions, Jones never thought to apply for a patent.  He watched helplessly as other men made fortunes off of their versions of the same device. Impervious, Jones began new projects including a radio transmitter, personal radio sets, and eventually motion picture devices. In 1939, Jones invented and received a patent for an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used at movie theaters. He later sold the patent rights to RCA. Jones formed a partnership called the U.S. Thermo Control Company, with Jones as vice president.  He was given the task of developing a device that would allow large trucks to transport perishable products without spoiling. Jones set to work and his automatic refrigeration system, the Thermo King, was born.  Eventually, he modified the original design so it could be outfitted for trains, boats, and ships. As a result, the frozen food industry was born and for the first time consumers could enjoy fresh foods from around the globe and U.S. Thermo became a multimillion-dollar company. During World War II, a need for a unit for storing blood serum for transfusions and medicines led Jones into further refrigeration research.  For this, he created an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens.  As a result, may lives were saved.  A modified form of his device is still in use today. In 1944, Jones became the first African American to be elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.  During the 1950s, he was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards.  When he died on February 21, 1961, Jones had more than sixty patents. Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 – the first Black inventor to ever receive such an honor.

10. David N. Crosthwait, Jr. was born in 1983 in Nashville, TN. Upon graduating from high school in Kansas City in 1908 Crosthwait received a full academic scholarship to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.  He graduated in 1913 from Purdue at the top of his class and received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.  He then took a job with C.A. Dunham Company (now Dunham-Bush, Inc.). At Dunham, Crosthwait held many positions, including director of research. He conducted innovative research, and designed the heat system for Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. He held 119 patents—39 in the U.S. and 80 internationally—all in relation to heating, cooling and temperature regulating technology. Besides research, product development and HVAC system design, Crosthwait also advanced his field by writing articles and revising sections of several editions of American Society of Heating and Ventilation Engineers Guide. In 1969 Crosthwait retired from the Dunham Company and began teaching courses at Purdue University. Crosthwait’s accomplishments were recognized by many in his field: He won a medal from the National Technological Association in the 1930s and was made a fellow of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers in 1971—making him the first African American to receive the honor.

11. Percy Lavon Julian was born in 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama. Growing up in the time of racist Jim Crow, among his childhood memories was finding a lynched man hanged from a tree while walking in the woods near his home. Julian attended DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. In 1923 he received an Austin Fellowship in Chemistry, which allowed him to attend Harvard University to obtain his M.S. However, worried that white students would resent being taught by an African-American, Harvard withdrew Julian’s teaching assistantship, making it impossible for him to complete his Ph.D. at Harvard. In 1929, while an instructor at Howard University, Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to continue his graduate work at the University of Vienna, where he earned his Ph.D. In 1931. Julian taught at Howard University briefly, but got involved in so many scandals, most of his own making, that he had to resign. Julian was then offered a position to teach organic chemistry at DePauw University in 1932. In 1936, Glidden, offered Julian the position of director of research at Glidden’s Soya Products Division in Chicago. Julian became a pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants.He was the first to synthesize the natural product physostigmine, plus a pioneer in the industrial large-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones progesterone and testosterone from plant sterols such as stigmasterol and sitosterol. His work laid the foundation for the steroid drug industry’s production of cortisone, other corticosteroids, and birth control pills. On December 1, 1953, Julian left Glidden after 18 years, giving up a salary of nearly $50,000 a year (equivalent to $470,000 in 2018) to found his own company, Julian Laboratories, Inc., in Franklin Park, Illinois to synthesize steroid intermediates from the wild Mexican yam. His work helped greatly reduce the cost of steroid intermediates to large multinational pharmaceutical companies, helping to significantly expand the use of several important drugs. Julian won a contract to provide Upjohn  with $2 million worth of progesterone (equivalent to $17 million today). He brought many of his best chemists, including African-Americans and women, from Glidden to his own company. He sold the company in 1961 for $2.3 million. The U.S. and Mexico facilities were purchased by Smith Kline, and Julian’s chemical plant in Guatemala was purchased by Upjohn. In 1964, Julian founded Julian Associates and Julian Research Institute, which he managed for the rest of his life. Julian received more than 130 chemical patents. He was the first African-American chemist inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, and the second African-American scientist inducted (behind David Blackwell) from any field.

So there you have it. Eleven scientists, engineers and inventors who spanned the gamut of STEM fields, fighting discrimination and racism to achieve amazing results in their fields. I had heard of Carver, Julian, Jones and Morgan, but the rest are new to me and I am thrilled that researchers have done the digging to identify them and help us expand our sense of pride in our accomplishments. And wait ‘til you see the group I come up with next time. J

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Black History Month 2019: Day 1 – STEM in the 19th Century

Welcome Black History Month. Would you believe I’ve been researching Black History for nearly 30 years and the first thing I ever chose to study was blacks in science. Armed with books by Ivan Van Sertima and JA Rogers, I read about, and did presentations about Egypt, African astronomy and architecture and so many of the “African-American Firsts” of the 19th and 20th century. Turn forward 30 years, and now there is the Internet, where there has been such a fantastic effort to uncover black scientists and inventors, that I am overwhelmed with examples of our contributions to all scientific and engineering fields. Today we are in every major university, every Fortune 500 manufacturing company, every national lab. We are inventing things, we are discovering things, and we are running things. So of course, I can’t wait to share with you my “discoveries”.

The first African-American to ever receive a patent was Thomas Jennings, a free man, born in 1791 in New York who worked as a tailor. In 1821, he patented a process called dry-scouring, the forerunner to today’s modern dry-cleaning. Slaves could not patent inventions – their masters owned rights to their creativity based on US patent laws passed in 1793. But because Jennings was free, he was able to profit from his invention, and used the money to free others in his family. Slavery was legal in New York up until 1827.

Norbert Rillieux, was a free, half-white Creole, born in Louisiana in 1806 whose father had a sugar plantation. Rillieux was educated in Catholic private schools in Louisiana, then studied engineering in France. Rillieux revolutionized the sugar industry with the multiple-effect evaporator, a device that produced high-quality sugar and reduced production costs by using steam efficiently to evaporate water and prevent sugar from burning or being discolored. Rillieux was given credit for his invention and was sought after, but the discrimination he faced made him return to France.

Henry Blair was the second African-American to receive a patent. A free man born in Maryland in 1807, his first invention was the Seed-Planter,[2] patented in, 1834, which allowed farmers to plant more corn using less labor in a smaller amount of time. In 1836[3] he obtained a second patent for a cotton planter. This invention worked by splitting the ground with two shovel-like blades which were pulled along by a horse. A wheel-driven cylinder followed behind which dropped the seed into the newly plowed ground

Benjamin Bradley, also born in Maryland in 1830, was a slave. As a teenager, Bradley was put to work at an office where he built a working steam engine from pieces of scrap metal. Others were so impressed with Bradley’s mechanical skills that he was given a job as an assistant in the science department at the United States Naval Academy . His master kept all but $5 a month. Bradley saved the money he earned, and sold his original model engine to a student at the Academy. He then used this money to develop and build an engine large enough to run the first steam-powered warship. Instead of patenting it, he sold the rights to it in order to buy his freedom.

Alexander Miles, born free in Minnesota in 1830, patented automatic elevator doors, keeping people from falling into elevator shafts. His was not the first such invention, but his is similar to what is used today. Prior to automatic elevator doors, doors wer opened by either the elevator operator (now you know why those folks were so important!) or by passengers, contributing greatly to the hazards of operating an elevator. Miles attached a flexible belt to the elevator cage, and when the belt came into contact with drums positioned along the elevator shaft just above and below the floors, it allowed the elevator shaft doors to operate at the appropriate times. The elevator doors themselves were automated through a series of levers and rollers.

Elijah McCoy and Andrew Jackson Beard were inventors who came up with devices related to the fast growing train industry. McCoy, born free in Canada in 1844, studied engineering in Scotland. He held 57 different patents having to do with lubricating steam engines. His most famous device was an oil-drip cup which allowed machines in motion to remain oiled. Beard was born a slave in Alabama in 1849. After emancipation, he invented the Jenny Coupler – an improvement on an earlier “knuckle coupler’ which automatically locked two train car-bumps together, so that it didn’t have to be done manually. Car coupling, an extremely dangerous task, required a railroad worker to brace himself between cars and drop a metal pin into place at the exact moment the cars came together. Few railroad men kept all their fingers, many lost arms and hands. Some were caught between cars and crushed to death during the hazardous split-second operation. Beard himself lost a leg as a result of a car coupling accident.


Lewis Latimer was born free in Massachusetts in 1848, the son of runaway slaves. He worked in the navy during the Civil War, then worked in a patent law firm, where he learned drafting. His earliest patent was for an improvement to toilets in railroad cars. Alexander Graham Bell had Latimer draft the drawings to patent his telephone. He was later hired by a firm in competition with Edisons’s lighting company where he co0invented a lightbulb with a carbon filament that allows a lightbulb to burn for hundreds of hours. Edison’s lightbulb filament was made of paper and burned out quickly. The Edison Electric Light Company in New York City hired Latimer in 1884, as a draftsman and an expert witness in patent litigation on electric lights. While at Edison, Latimer wrote the first book on electric lighting, Incandescent Electric Lighting (1890) and supervised the installation of public electric lights throughout New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London

Jan Ernst Matzeliger was born in Dutch Giuiana/Suriname on a coffee plantation in 1852. He left at age 19 and moved first to Pennsylvania, and later to Massachussetts. Matzeliger invented an automated shoemaking machine that increased shoe production from 50 shoes per day sewed by hand, to 700 shoes/day with machine stitching. As a result, the cost of shoes was cut in half. Matzeliger sacrificed his health to develop his invention and a cold turned into tuberculosis, causing his death at age 37.

On a different level, Edward Bouchet, born in 1852 in Connecticut became the first black man to ever receive a PhD from an American university. He received his PhD in physics from Yale in 1876. Unsurprisingly, in 1876, no college or university would allow him to teach. So he took a position at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth which later became, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, our nation’s first HBCU. He floated around to different schools in the turn of the century, ending up at another HBCU, Bishop College in Texas. He returned to Connecticut to retire.

One of our greatest 19th century inventors was Granville T. Woods. Woods was born a free man in Ohio in 1856; He studied mechanical and electrical engineering from 1876-1878. In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called “telegraphony”, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains. Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph. He died on January 30, 1910 in New York City, having sold a number of his devices to such companies as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering.


So, what do you think! Were we busy! Next week, I’ll highlight some turn-of-the-century inventors, and then I’ll move solidly into the 20th century.

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