The odds were stacked against them, but these Black women pioneers forged ahead and made advances in various fields including science and technology while improving lives. Thanks to them, the world has been blessed with great ideas and innovations that are helping to shape the future.
But their works were overlooked largely due to their gender and race. Their amazing discoveries were credited to men. Here are three Black women whose works went unrecognized.
Alice Ball, the first African-American master’s graduate from the University of Hawaii, used her passion for chemistry to develop an injectable oil extract for leprosy. A century ago, leprosy, otherwise known as Hansen’s disease, was not as rare as it is now. The ailment that changes from skin lesions to disfigurements could gradually kill. Lepers at the time were quarantined and had to announce their presence using bells so people could avoid them. By the early 20th century, treatments began evolving for the disease. Chaulmoogra oil, a substance from the seeds of a tropical evergreen tree, was being used to treat patients but produced inconsistent results and had side effects.
Chemist Ball came to their aid. She began investigating the chemical properties of chaulmoogra oil, where she managed to isolate the effective ingredients. This resulted in the creation of a new regimen of injection-based medicine that stayed in use for the treatment of the disease for more than two decades.
Sadly, Ball never got to see the results of her work as she died in 1916, aged 24, shortly after making her discovery and before she could publish her findings. After her death, Arthur Dean, the chairman of the Chemistry Department at the University of Hawaii, began using Ball’s research work and discovery. He eventually claimed ownership of the work and never credited Ball. In 1922, Dr. Harry T. Hollmann, the assistant surgeon at Kalihi Hospital who had mentored Ball and encouraged her to explore chaulmoogra oil, published a research paper giving Ball the proper credit she deserved for her discovery, calling it ‘The Ball Method’, which became the most effective way of treating Hansen’s disease. It was also almost 90 years after Ball’s death that the University of Hawaii officially recognized Balls’ contributions and declared February 29 as “Alice Ball Day.”
Marcel Grateau, who opened the first successful salon for women in Paris in 1872, is often credited with inventing the hair straightener, but it was Ada Harris who first claimed the patent for it in 1893. Grateau actually invented the curling iron for his Parisian salon around 1872.
Harris, a school teacher from Indianapolis, was born in Kentucky in 1870. She later moved to Indianapolis with her mother, Anna Toliver. Harris became a school teacher at the age of 18. She submitted her patent for the first hair straightener on November 3, 1893.
“Be it known,” the patent application reads, “that I, ADA HARRIS, of Indianapolis, county of Marion, and State of Indiana, have invented a certain new and useful Hair- Straightener.”
The patent described her hair straightener as a device “heated like a curling iron” with two flat faces held together by a hinge that “when they press the hair will make it straight,” according to RACKED. Harris’s device also included a toothed or comb portion to separate the hair while straightening. Harris sent her prototype and her drawings from the patent submission to the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, where she displayed her invention in a booth.
“My invention relates to a hair straightener whose purpose is to straighten curly hair,” Harris wrote in her patent filing for the hair straightener, “and is especially of service to; colored people in straightening their hair.”
The work of NASA’s “human computer” Katherine Johnson gained worldwide attention when her life was chronicled in the film, Hidden Figures. A child prodigy, she entered a specialized high school program on the campus of West Virginia State College at the age of 10. The county she was raised in did not provide an education for Black students beyond the eighth grade. She went on to graduate from high school at 14 and took every math course offered at West Virginia State, a historically black college in her home state. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with degrees in French and Mathematics at the age of 18.
When Johnson decided to explore a career in research mathematics, it was then a difficult field for African Americans. She was however determined and would go on to make history at NASA. It is documented that Johnson discovered the exact path for the Freedom 7 spacecraft to successfully enter space for the first time in 1961 and then for the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon eight years later. She did this all the while experiencing racial and gender segregation. At the time, Johnson recalled that no woman had her name placed on a report she completed. Johnson and other Black women who were mathematicians worked under the supervision of White engineers. The computers they worked on were labeled “colored computers”, she said. In effect, her works went unacknowledged by her male colleagues.