ASWWU logo
Walla Walla, WA
Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Black Scientists who Helped the World

February, 2023
Austin Price

Celebrating Transformative Black Scientists

Austin Price

This month we celebrate the achievements in science led by Black scientists by diving into a specific realm of Black history.  

We begin this small journey of celebration with George Washington Carver. Born in the 1860s, he was a groundbreaking botanist, inventor, and teacher. He is responsible for the success of many farmers who used his methods of improved technology to grow crops more successfully. He was born into slavery and, as he grew, had an increasing urge to become educated.  

He eventually got a master’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State University. He advised leaders of high status even though he was Black, something extremely uncommon during that time period. As PBS wrote, “He advised prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and President Teddy Roosevelt on agriculture and nutrition.” [1] 

The epitaph of Carver’s grave says, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” [2] 

Jumping forward in time, we have mathematician Katherine Johnson, born in 1918. Johnson was responsible for using digital electronic computers to help the United States get to space and, more specifically, come back to earth once space travel was achieved.  

NASA wrote, “She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight.” [3] In 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And recently, in 2016, the movie “Hidden Figures,” based on the novel by Margot Lee Shetterly, was made to give homage to her success along with other African American women’s achievements and pursuit of education despite racism. [4] 

Neil deGrasse Tyson. Recognize people for their accomplishments, not their labels. Photo by Mike Coppola, Getty Images.

The last example is Neil deGrasse Tyson, born in 1958. He, like Katherine Johnson, explores space, albeit in a different way. Tyson is a prominent astrophysicist who studied physics at Harvard, astronomy at the University of Texas, and earned his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia University. He is well known for his knowledge and charisma in astrology and in education. He is part of a movement to educate the public on astrophysical concepts and discoveries. Fun fact, he has an asteroid named after him called “13123 Tyson.” [5] He is an advocate for education, especially in scientific fields. He said about his current project, “I relish the challenge of making science accessible and relevant to many different audiences.” [6] 

Tyson points out that it is important to celebrate Black scientists for their brilliance in their field, not just for being Black. In an interview on the topic of the relationship between race and what he does, he remarked, “I hardly ever talk about skin color because I want to make it irrelevant as quickly as I possibly can in every context I’m possibly in. So, if you’re going to invite me to give a public talk in February, Black History Month, I will decline that invitation. If you only think of me as a Black scientist, then I have failed as a scientist, period, period.” [7] 

Black scientists like the ones listed above paved the way for many future scientists, including the students here on the Walla Walla University campus. 

When asked about his love for science, O’Neil Willis, junior business major and biology minor, said, “Science is our lens into the world around us... It’s the process we’ve used for centuries to better understand the earth God gave us and all the surrounding celestial bodies. The great thing about science is that it can be used to understand both simple and complex things. It covers such a wide spectrum of topics that run so deep one can dedicate a lifetime of research to one field and still not completely know everything there is.” [8] 



  1. Connolly, R., & Kinney, B. (2018). Ten Black scientists that science teachers should know about. Public Broadcasting Service.  
  2. Public Broadcasting Service. (2023). George Washington Carver / Scientist, inventor, and teacher [Video].  
  3. Margot L. S. (2020). Katherine Jonson Biography. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  
  4. Toby, M. M. (2017, January 19). “Hidden Figures”: The true story of the Black women at NASA daring “Fearlessly to pursue their dreams.” Los Angeles Review of Books.  
  5. Amrican Museum of Natural History. (n.d.). Neil deGrasse Tyson. Seminars on Science.  
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Audiblevideo. (2022, December 5). Neil deGrasse Tyson, I will not attend an interview on being Black!!! [Video]. Youtube.  
  8. Email with O’Neil Willis, 1/29/23.  
menuchevron-upchevron-downmenu-circlecross-circle linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram