Celebrating Black innovators
The United States of America is known for innovation. Throughout our history, Black innovators have played a significant role in elevating the U.S. thorough innovation while at the same time facing oppressive institutions and racism. Many of their inventions make daily life easier, including everything from the ironing board to stop lights, just to name a few.
Prominent innovators, like George Washington Carver and C.J. Walker, are often spotlighted. This Black History Month we want to celebrate a few of the many Black innovators whose contributions play significant roles in progressing our industry. The work of those listed assist in allowing Leidos to continue making the world healthier, safer, and more efficient.
Known as the “Father of the Blood Bank,” Dr. Drew created the first blood bank in the US after discovering a method for long-term storage of blood plasma. Dr. Drew’s systematic developments helped to save thousands of lives during World War II and his standardized procedures were adapted by the American Red Cross for their long-term blood preservation and storage.
Given widespread segregation at the time, Drew’s education in medicine and career opportunities were limited, leading him to McGill University College of Medicine in Montreal, Canada. He went on to distinguish himself winning prestigious awards and graduating in 1933, second in his class of 137 students with a medical degree and a Master of Surgery degree.
Dr. Drew joined the faculty at Howard University College of Medicine, starting as a pathology instructor, and then progressed to surgical instructor and Chief Surgical Resident at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dr. Drew later won a fellowship to train at Presbyterian Hospital in New York with eminent surgeon Dr. Allen Whipple and become the first African American to earn a medical doctorate from Columbia University.
His experience and procedures led him to become appointed head of the Blood for Britain Project, an effort to transport desperately needed blood and plasma to Great Britain, which was under attack by Germany in 1940.
Dr. Wright developed new techniques for administering cancer chemotherapy after studying a wide range of anti-cancer agents and exploring the relationships between patients and tissue culture results.
As the daughter of one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard Medical School and founder of the Cancer Research Center at Harlem Hospital, Dr. Wright grew up surrounded by medical knowledge.
After graduating with honors from New York Medical College in 1945, Dr. Wright completed her residency at Harlem Hospital, and after a short leave for the birth of her first child, returned to complete her training as Chief Resident. She later became the Director of the Cancer Research Foundation at Harlem Hospital, working alongside her father.
While her father worked in the lab, Dr. Wright performed patient trials, as chemotherapy was still experimental at that time. Testing a new chemical on human leukemia and cancers of the lymphatic system, patients participating in their trials began remission. In 1952, at the age of 33, Dr. Wright was appointed Head of the Cancer Research Foundation after her father’s death.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Dr. Wright to the President's Commission on heart disease, cancer, and stroke. By 1967, she was the highest ranking African American woman in a U.S. medical institution as Professor of Surgery, Head of the Cancer Chemotherapy Department, and Associate Dean at New York Medical College. In 1971, Dr. Jane Wright became the first female President of the New York Cancer Society.
Some may have first heard about Katherine Johnson from Hidden Figures, a 2016 film highlighting Johnson and a handful of other African American women who contributed to U.S. missions into space. Johnson, a mathematician, was one of NASA’s human computers who calculated the U.S.’ first crewed space mission and moon landing.
Johnson grew up in West Virginia, graduating high school at the age of 14 and attending college at the historically Black West Virginia State College, graduating with degrees in math and French. She first became a teacher before taking a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics that eventually became NASA. In 1953, hired to do computing in the guidance and navigation department at Langley's Research Center, Johnson faced both sexism and racism, but she did not allow this to hold her back and pushed for a seat in men-only briefings.
Johnson continued to move up the chain in NASA, she hand-computed the trajectory of the first manned launch. She continued to be an asset to astronauts, including John Glenn who considered her calculations as part of the preflight checklist. Johnson spent 33 years with NASA, which named the Computational Research Facility in her honor. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Obama.
Both a physicist and engineer, George Alcorn was known for his aerospace and semiconductor inventions. His most notable invention was the x-ray imaging spectrometer, which was patented in 1984. It allowed for the detection of radio signatures at a more distant and accurate rate than previously possible.
As an employee of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Alcorn paired the spectrometer with telescopes and satellites which allowed for data that assisted in scientific and technical applications. Alcorn’s device is now used to conduct planetary mapping, create star charts reveling motions of systems and search for new planets.
Alcorn was a founder of Saturday Academy, a weekend math and science honors program for inner-city middle school students and worked to support minority Ph.D. candidates in science and engineering.
When Apple was new to the market, Kimberly Bryant was a freshman in high school looking forward to tackling the new coding languages Fortran and Pascal in electrical engineering. As she pursued her studies in STEM, Bryant recalls feeling culturally isolated compared too few classmates. She was often both the only woman and person of color in STEM conversations.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1989 with a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in mathematics, Bryant went on to hold many technical leadership roles in pharmaceutical and biotech industries with Fortune 100 companies.
Seeing her own daughter’s interest in science and math and the lack of role models for minority populations in STEM, Bryant founded Black Girls Code in 2011. The company’s purpose is to support young women in science, technology, engineering and math, both normalizing and promoting girls of color in STEM.
Black Girls Code trains girls in primary and secondary school on coding using popular languages through after-school and summer programs. As of 2013, the non-profit organization has reportedly reached over 3,000 students, established seven institutions, is operated in nearly 10 U.S. states, and worked internationally with a community in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Since launching Black Girls Code, Bryant has been listed as one of the “25 Most Influential African Americans In Technology,” made both The Root 100 and Ebony Power 100 lists in 2013, was invited to the White House as a “Champion of Change,” received an American Ingenuity Award in Social Progress from the Smithsonian, and was bestowed the Inaugural Women Who Rule Award in Technology.