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Famous African American Scientists & Inventors

Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

African American scientists and inventors have been making history for hundreds of years. This lesson discusses the lives and discoveries of five of these innovators, both past and present.

Innovators and Revolutionaries

Never be limited by other people's limited imaginations. - Mae Jemison

The following scientists and inventors have been leaders, ground breakers and role models in their fields. We must celebrate their accomplishments not only because they are great, but so that all children with a passion for science can recognize the opportunities on their horizons.

Patricia Bath (1942-)

Patricia Bath, ophthalmologist and laser surgeon
Portrait of Patricia Bath.

Patricia Bath was born and raised in New York City, where she graduated from high school after only two years. After earning her bachelor's degree from Hunter College, she attended Howard University Medical Center. After earning her M.D. in 1968, she began a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia. Her research there on blindness and glaucoma led her to develop the field of community ophthalmology, which aims to provide eye care to patients unable to afford treatment.

In 1974 Bath became an assistant professor at both Drew University and UCLA. Two years later, she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness, and, in 1983, she helped create and chair the Ophthalmology Residency Training program at UCLA-Drew. This achievement landed her the honor of the being the first woman in the country to chair an ophthalmology department.

Finally, in 1988, she received a patent for her Laserphaco Probe which uses laser technology to treat cataracts. The laserphaco technique is currently used around the world and with it, Bath was able to restore vision to patients who had been blind for more than thirty years.

Mae Jemison (1956-)

Mae Jemison, astronaut and medical researcher.
Portrait of Mae Jemison.

Mae Jemison was born in Alabama, but grew up in Chicago. After high school, Jemison attended Stanford University. She earned her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1977 and went on to study medicine at Cornell.

Following an internship at USC Medical Center, she became a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Upon returning to the United States in 1985, she decided to pursue her dreams of becoming an astronaut and applied for NASA's training program.

In 1987, Jemison became the first African American woman to be admitted to the program. And in 1992, she joined the crew of the spaceship Endeavor as the science mission specialist, becoming the first African American woman in space.

Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)

Garrett Morgan, inventor and entrepreneur.
Portrait of Garrett Morgan.

Garrett Morgan was born in Kentucky and only received a sixth grade education. However, he had an innate understanding of machines and natural talents as a businessman. As a teenager, he moved to Cincinnati and found work at a textile factory. There he studied the sewing machines, earning a patent for an improved version, and started his own repair business.

Sewing machines were only the beginning as Morgan moved on to further ventures, including hair straightening products, an all-black country club and an African American newspaper. His most significant innovations, however, were the gas mask and the traffic signal.

In 1914 Moran patented his safety hood to help fire fighters breathe easier in the presence of smoke and fumes. The army used Morgan's safety hood as a prototype for the gas masks employed during World War I.

In 1923 he acquired a patent for the forerunner of today's traffic lights. His traffic signal was designed to stand at intersections and notify drivers when to stop and go. He eventually sold the rights to General Electric for $40,000. Morgan was honored for his invention by the U.S. government shortly before his death.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958-)

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and public scientist.
Portrait of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Neil deGrasse Tyson was born in New York City, where he graduated from high school in 1976. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard and doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia.

Despite numerous academic publications and two stints as a presidential advisor, Tyson has made it his life's work to bring scientific understanding and literacy to the general public. He has written several books for a mainstream audience, including Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller.

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