Spotlight on: Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson was born in West Virginia in 1918. At age 18, Katherine graduated West Virginia State College with highest honours with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French. Initially, she started working as a teacher, however in 1939 she was enrolled as the first African American woman in the graduate maths programme at West Virginia University. However, she left her studies after a year because she had gotten pregnant, to get married and raise a family.  In 1953 Katherine accepted a position as a mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would later become NASA. Her initial role within the organisation was to act as a “computer” along with other women. It was their job to analyse data from airplanes. Given the United States’ segregation laws at the time, Katherine and her fellow black colleagues were forced to work, eat, and use bathrooms separated from their white female colleagues. In later interviews, Katherine described how assertive and aggressive she had to be, even after desegregation.

In 1960 she became the first woman to have officially co-authored a paper on engineering; previously the women who worked on reports and papers were not awarded the recognition or respect of adding their names. In her time at NASA, her skill and knowledge of analytical geometry earned her respect from her white male colleagues and eventually lead to her working on projects such as Freedom 7, the space craft that sent the first US astronaut into space, and Apollo 11, the moon landing. She retired in 1968 but continued to work tirelessly to promote STEM subject to young students. Katherine died at the age of 101 in 2020.