Today is Juneteenth—the day we commemorate the emancipation announcement in Galveston, Texas in 1865, which saw the end to slavery in the United States. It became a federal holiday just last year, when President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.
In addition to the gatherings and celebrations that will take place across the country, I want to take today to honor Black scientists throughout history.
Onesimus (late 1600s – 1700s)
As smallpox ravaged Boston in the early 1700s, people were desperate for a way to end the staggering number of deaths it was causing. A minister, Cotton Mather, owned an African slave named Onesimus, who told him of a procedure that could prevent smallpox. It involved rubbing pus from someone who had the disease into an open wound on the arm. While not technically a vaccination, the process did provoke immunity. Mather believed him, enlisted the help of a local doctor and endured ridicule from the public to test it out. But it worked … for the most part. Of the 242 people who had the procedure, only 6 died, which was much less than the 1 in 7 ratio of deaths in the population who didn’t have it. This success, which originated with Onesimus, set the stage for vaccinations. As a result, smallpox was eventually eradicated. Sadly, during his life, Onesimus never got credit for this monumental contribution to science.
Percy Lavon Julian (1899 – 1975)
A pioneer in the chemistry of medicinal plants, Percy Lavon Julian came from humble beginnings as the grandson of an enslaved family in Montgomery, Alabama. After being accepted conditionally to DePauw University, he overcame the racial and socio-economic odds against him and graduated as class valedictorian in 1920.
He returned to his alma mater after earning his doctorate abroad, to become part of the team that generated the first total synthesis of physostigmine, which is used to treat glaucoma. Following that, he worked for the Glidden Company in Chicago, where he developed an industrial process to convert stigmasterol to progesterone in bulk, which is used to help pregnant women avoid miscarriages. He also helped synthesize cortisone and hydrocortisone, which are used to relieve the suffering of arthritis and other ailments. When he started his own business, Percy made sure to hire scientists of color and speak out against the racial disparities in society. A NOVA film, Forgotten Genius, pays tribute to his remarkable life.
Marie Maynard Daly (1921 – 2003)
The first Black woman to earn a doctorate in chemistry, Marie Maynard Daly seemed destined for a career in science. In her youth, she was intrigued by Paul de Kruif’s book The Microbe Hunters and was greatly influenced by her father’s love for science.
Among her contributions, Mary detailed the order of amino acids in histones; she was among the first to determine risk factors for heart disease; and her work on nucleic acids was so instrumental in the learning about cell biology that Nobel Prize Winners, Dr. Watson and Dr. Crick (who discovered DNA’s double helix backbone) mentioned her in their acceptance speech! Mary was also a champion for minority representation in the field, establishing a scholarship fund for African American science students in 1988.
Jewel Plummer Cobb (1924 – 2017)
The first Black woman appointed to the National Science Board (in 1974), Jewel Plummer Cobb was influential in many ways throughout her career. Though she came from an upper-middle class family and her father and grandfather both had careers in medicine, Jewel faced segregation as she pursued higher education and switched schools from the University of Michigan to Talladega College in Alabama as a result. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology there, yet was turned down for a teaching fellowship at NYU because of her race. Undeterred, Jewel visited the university personally and convinced them of her credentials. They accepted her, and she went on to earn both her master’s and doctorate there.
Her career thrived thereafter—both as an educator at NYU, Sarah Lawrence College, Rutgers University and Connecticut College, and as a researcher. She is perhaps best known for her work studying skin pigment, how melanin can protect skin from ultraviolet damage, and her tests to learn the differences between normal and cancerous pigment cells. Her research findings helped the scientific community both understand skin cancer and develop chemotherapy for many types of cancers. She also gave back to her community by publishing reports on the lack of representation for women and minorities in science, and established numerous programs throughout the years to address these issues.
Who are your Black science heroes on this Juneteenth? Share your list in the comments section.
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Juneteenth Graphic Credit: Wynn Pointaux/Pixabay