Garrett Augustus Morgan (1877 – 1963)
Morgan is best known for his invention of the Safety Hood, or what is now known as the gas mask, after he saw firefighters struggling to breathe in the smoke. In spite of the obvious benefits of this invention, Morgan had trouble selling his Safety Hood to fire departments in the South. He was forced to hire a white actor to pose as the inventor of the device. On top of all the lives he has indirectly saved with his creation, he also personally rescued workers after a tunnel collapse under Lake Erie, but was only credited as a hero after his death.
Percy L Julian (1899-1975)
Julian was a chemist who first synthesized physostigmine, a naturally occurring chemical that could treat glaucoma. Thanks to him, Physostigmine is readily available, not only for glaucoma treatment, but also for research in other therapeutic areas, such as Alzheimer’s disease treatment. Moreover, as part of this research, Julian also developed a technique to produce commercial quantities of sex hormones at reduced cost, making them more easily accessible. Julian faced many obstacles in his career, including being rejected from a research job due to a town law which forbade “housing of a Negro overnight.” As a result of these obstacles, Julian was a staunch human rights activist until his death.
Charles R Drew (1904 – 1950)
Aptly named “Father of the Blood Bank”, Drew developed a method for storing blood plasma long term and organized the first large-scale blood bank in America. This technique was used to send safe plasma to Britain as they were under attack from Germany and it saved countless lives. He went on to work with the Red Cross in creating a programme to introduce “bloodmobiles” – mobile blood donation trucks. In spite of his skill as a physician and leader of this project, African Americans were still excluded from donating blood by the Red Cross, meaning he couldn’t participate in his own programme. He believed his greatest contribution to medicine was his mentoring of young African American surgeons into highly skilled individuals who could be placed around the country.
“…we believe that the Negro in the field of physical sciences has not only opened a small passageway to the outside world, but is carving a road in many untrod areas, along which later generations will find it more easy to travel. The breaching of these walls and the laying of this road has not been, and is not easy.” -Charles R Drew
Patricia Bath (1942)
Patricia Bath was the first black woman to receive a medical device patent for her laserphaco probe -a device which aids in removing cataracts. While she was a medical intern, she found that black communities had a significantly higher prevalence of blindness than white communities, due to poor access to ophthalmic care. As a result, she created a new field called Community Opthalmology, which combines public health and clinical ophthalmology. Through her work in this programme, she saved thousands of individuals from eye conditions that would have otherwise gone untreated. This work also resulted in more children getting glasses when they needed them, so they could perform better at school. Later in life, she co-founded the American Institute for Prevention of Blindness.
Mae Jemison (1956)
Mae Jemison is an endlessly impressive person. She speaks four languages (English, Russian, Japanese and Swahili) and has the distinction of being the first female African American Astronaut, as well as the first African American woman in space after her mission on the Endeavour space shuttle. Her company, the Jemison Group, encourages students to love science and runs an international science camp for high school students.
“You can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.”- Mae Jemison