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Black History Month: The Complicated Power of More Women Scientists’ Faces

Montage of photos of African-American women in STEM


The photos are gorgeous. They’re uplifting. The images bring women we have not heard of before to life, shifting our own image of “science”, too. The stream of women scientists’ faces is one of the great things about Black History Month, and it flows on in Women’s History Month.

For this month, I planned to hunt out a bunch of copyright-free photos of African-American women scientists, and add them to their Wikipedia pages. Pictures are one of the main drivers for whose stories get told and shared. So expanding the pool of women we can “see” matters. And I found some great ones – those in the montage above, and more.

But there are problems, too. Some of the same forces responsible for stacking the odds against African-American women thriving and achieving in science are in play all over again when it comes to who we see now.

“The image of the scientist as white and male was neither an accident nor the random distribution of interest, talent or merit…”

Douglas M. Haynes (Always the exception)

As I’ve been combing through what seems like a bottomless pit of digitized old black and white photos of white scientists, the Black History Month stories and tweets about African-American women scientists were mostly about the same small group – although this year, plus the fabulous supersonic boost by Margot Lee Shetterly and the women of Hidden Figures.

That’s not because the supply of African-American women scientists from the past with gripping stories is tapped out. It’s not. Rather, when it comes to the stories of black women scientists, Diann Jordan writes, “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few”.

There is some randomness about whose stories have been told, who had compelling, high quality photos taken, and which images have surfaced online. Mostly it’s not random, though. The odds are stacked against visibility in the historical record, as it was in life – and for many of the same reasons.

“Her name never appeared on a single research report, but she had contributed, directly or indirectly, to scores of them”.

Margot Lee Shetterly, about Dorothy Vaughan (Hidden Figures)

“Having to prove myself might be fine if I didn’t see inexperienced white men and sometimes white women given opportunities so that they can gain experience and exposure”.

Diann Jordan (Sisters in Science)

It’s happening with the stories, too, and whose priorities drive them. Out of over 200 bios picked up by the Wikipedia project on women in science with an importance rating of “high” or “top”, I found only one about a black woman. Only one.

We need more images – but there are still far too many yawning gaps in whose stories are accessible online. There is a lot of material out there, but we need more of the journal and media articles that can feed Wikipedia pages, too. It’s not a job that has ever been done only by historians. You can do it alone, or get groups to find out about the women – especially the women of color – in your institution’s past, or your discipline’s history, and publish in journals and your institution’s magazines and blogs.

On Twitter? Follow @MissingSciFaces!

We need more stories by journalists and scientists like Undark‘s “Unsung Heroes” series, too. If the demand for them is strong, more will be produced. So click on stories, read them, share them. The visibility imbalances aren’t going to change on their own.

“The fact that I’m making history for this is mind-blowing. It makes you think, wait, what year is it again?”

Paulette McCrae, Yale’s first African-American PhD in neurobiology … in 2007 – perhaps the first African-American PhD in neuroscience.

“Am I really the first?”

Kyla McMullen, University of Michigan’s first African-American women PhD in computer science … in 2013.

Getting even one copyright-released photo or portrait online will help: at your institution’s website or on flickr, if not Wikimedia Commons directly, and marked as public domain, or CC-BY, CC-BY-SA, or CC0. That’s what Gavin Hitchener did at Cornell for one of the women whose image I was chasing, Jessie Isabelle Price. Here she is:


Photo of Cornell Duck Research Laboratory
From left to right: William D. Urban (Director),William F. Dean, Jessie I. Price, and Louis Leibovitz.

Here’s the page I wrote about Jessie Price, a veterinary microbiologist born in 1930, PhD in 1959. Like many of the women I’ve been reading and writing about, she made it through from a single-parent background, her choice of science career determined by financial, racial, and gender barriers. She had wanted to be a doctor. She isolated and reproduced, for the first time, bacteria that were killing ducks in vast numbers, enabling vaccines to be developed – and she developed some, too. There’s a stunning photoessay at Ebony magazine of Jessie at work in 1964.

Photo of a dish of bacteria growing in culture mediumThis is Mueller-Hinton agar, a culture medium that bacteria relish so much, it’s used commonly to grow them and test for antibiotic susceptibility.

The Hinton is after co-developer Jane Hinton, another African-American scientist of more than one “first”. Her father was a famous bacteriologist who wanted to be a doctor but was prevented from doing an internship by racism. William Augustus Hinton was the first African-American professor at Harvard, the first African-American author of a textbook…

Jane Hinton became one of the first two African-American women to become a doctor of veterinary medicine (VDM) in 1948. There wouldn’t be another African-American getting a VDM at her alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, till 1968. Veterinary medicine is apparently the whitest profession in the United States, at 97.3% in 2013.

[Updated] I called for help in this post to get this photo of  Vivienne Malone-Mayes released:


Vivienne Malone-Mayes, 1948 (via the Texas Collection, Baylor University)


Vivienne Malone-Mayes, born in 1932, was one of the first African-American women to get a PhD in mathematics and the first from the University of Texas – another woman who made it, battling against segregation in the US South. She was the first African-American faculty member at Baylor, and more. (Her Wikipedia page needs more work.)

Mathematician and science writer Evelyn Lamb got it sorted quickly, with an email and tweet:


The Texas Collection moved fast: Malone-Mayes’ Wikipedia page is now illustrated!

Here’s another mathematician from my montage, one you might know already, Euphemia Haynes – the first African-American woman to get a PhD in mathematics. That was in 1943. That her photo was in the Wikipedia system, but not in her page, is an indication of how much more could be done on her bio.


Martha Euphemia Lofton Haynes, Smith College Yearbook, 1914.


The last woman who studied mathematics in my montage is next. So what’s this all-males photo doing in here? It’s the entire scientific workforce of the geodetic survey in 1894, a part of the environmental science agency, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


Photo of a large group of white male scientists assembled in 1894


There are images like this in pretty much most areas of science, aren’t there? It’s a reminder of how daunting and seemingly insurmountable the professional and social obstacles were for young African-American aspiring scientists – and how mighty the achievement of breaking through was.

The first African-American woman to break through in NOAA was Evelyn J. Fields – here’s the Wikipedia page I added to this month. And here she is when she was starting out on a career at NOAA that ended with her being NOAA’s first African-American woman Rear Admiral – and the first African-American and the first woman to lead NOAA’s Officer Corps, the first woman to command a federal ship:


Photo of the young Evelyn Fields at work
Ensign Evelyn Fields (2nd from left) on the bridge of the NOAA Ship MT MITCHELL, 1974.


These ships are research vessels, conducting atmospheric and conservation research, and exploration. Fields graduated with a degree in mathematics and began as a cartographer. Successfully commanding these research expeditions meant understanding the science, the engineers, and the more military side:

“There are differences of perception when you’re dealing with scientists. They don’t always worry about weather conditions or physical constraints; they just want to do their work…I think of it as a community with different attitudes, perceptions, and various jobs to perform”.

Then Lt-Cmdr Evelyn J. Fields (interview in Ebony, 1990)

With a few exceptions, this can be a real blindspot about African-American colleagues: where we look when we think of women in STEM has an impact. As Shetterly writes in Hidden Figures, “the federal government was the most reliable employer of African Americans in the sciences and technology”. When we focus on science as academia, there’s a bias in who we don’t notice.

The last photo in my montage is on a NOAA ship too – engineer and metereologist, June Bacon-Bercey:


June Bacon-Bercey
June Bacon-Bercey, around 1977


This was another of the very many women I couldn’t believe didn’t already have a Wikipedia page. Aside from her work in radar and aviation meterology and weather forecasting – she was a TV metereologist for a while, too – Bacon-Bercey exemplifies another thing many of these women have in common: working hard to increase the participation of women and African-Americans in science and technology careers.

Bacon-Bercey is so serious about this, that when she won $64,000 in a TV quiz show in the 1970s, she established an endowment at the American Geophysical Union for young women interested in atmospheric science.

I found these next photos in NOAA’s photo library, too, and added them to his Wikipedia page. They are here to represent the stories of other scientists of color, male and female, whose stories we don’t know. This is Bell Shimada when he was young – and on the right, his son – who’s now a NOAA scientist, too – and his daughter, when NOAA commissioned a ship in his name. His name was suggested by a team of students when there was a competition to name that ship – but it’s not the only thing named after him.


A photo of Bell Shimada and one of his son and daughter


Shimada’s is another extraordinary life: from Japanese-American internee, to collecting and synthesizing data on the effects of bombing in Japan at the end of World War II, to a Masters of Science in fisheries and making an important impact on what we know about tuna. He died in a plane crash on a research trip at the age of 36.

Beth Brown died young, too. She was a prominent NASA astrophysicist.


Beth Brown, NASA
Beth Brown, NASA, 2008.


Brown moved from astronomy research into data archival work and public outreach. At the time of her death, she was about to take on a new position – Assistant Director for Science Communications and Higher Education. You can find out more about her life and work – including photos from childhood – in this tribute video.

(Thanks to Jay Friedlander, NASA, for confirming this photo was a US government work, and therefore in the public domain. The tribute video is by the National Society of Black Physicists.)

Here’s another of the women whose lack of a Wikipedia page shocked me: Cheryl L. Shavers was a chemist who moved into solid state chemistry and then to Silicon Valley. She became an expert in semiconductors among other things, with a stint as Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology:


Cheryl L. Shavers


Shavers loved studying and research, but did not want to stay in academia:

“That wasn’t for me. I wanted to get going, get back to industry where I could make things happen”.

She also came a long way from a tough neighborhood: she decided on chemistry after being fascinated by forensic science when police were investigating the murder of a sex worker in her street.

“Plot twist”: This PhD, published in 1936, is credited with being the first PhD in botany by an African-American woman.


Snapshot of publication


But Jesse Jarue Mark, born in 1906 in Texas, in a town with a population of 75 by World War I, was, it turns out, a man. The first PhD in botany by an African-American man is reported to be Thomas Wyatt Turner in 1921. So Mark is still one of the earliest African-Americans to earn a PhD. He was also on the faculty of Iowa State University, and was a Rockefeller Agriculture Fellow. The Wikipedia page has been corrected. Somewhere along the line, “Jesse” was misspelled “Jessie”, and the rest is history.

This is Willie May Jones: an example of an orphan digitized photo.


Photo of Willie Mae Jones
Willie Mae Jones, 1955


I can’t tell you much about her – it would take more than web searching to find out about her life and work, too. She was a nurse, who was the first African-American board member of the National League for Nursing in 1952. But I added her photo and a brief explanation of the organization’s history of struggle with segregation in nursing to the League’s Wikipedia page.

Audrey F. Manley was almost an orphan in Wikipedia: her photo was there, but almost nothing else.


Audrey F. Manley, Surgeon General 1995-1997.


Here’s some of what I added to her Wikipedia page:

Manley was born Audrey Forbes in 1934 in Jackson, Mississippi. Her parents were Ora Lee Buckhalter and Jesse Lee Forbes. She was the eldest of three daughters in a tenant farming family, picking cotton at age 9.

She became a pediatrician, then studied sickle cell disease. Manley was the first African-American woman appointed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health in the US Public Health Service – and she became the US Surgeon General.

If the measure of achievement is a combination of your legacy and how far you come from where you started, moderated by the odds stacked against you, then one of the greatest African-American achievers in STEM is Angie Turner King. Odds are you don’t know her. I made her Wikipedia page, but there’s no photo (yet – I’m trying). In the meantime, you can see a photo of her here.

“…in the winter time, when it would snow, I’d wake up with snow on my bed…”

King was another grandchild of slaves. She was born in 1905 in a segregated coal-mining community in West Virginia. Her mother died when she was eight; her father died in a coal-mining accident not long after. The attic room she’s describing above was in her grandmother’s house. Lighter-skinned than little Angie, she called her grandchild “the black bitch”. Later she got to live with her other grandfather, and go to school.

King was brilliant, but her teachers didn’t know there were scholarships. She waited tables and dishwash-ed her way to a Bachelor of Science, cum laude, in mathematics and chemistry. Her PhD in 1951 in mathematics was in the local news (with a photo). She was one of the teachers at West Virginia State College, where she was a major influence on many people who went on to postgraduate studies – including Katherine Johnson of Hidden Figures fame, who said she was “a wonderful teacher – bright, caring, and very rigorous”. In a questionnaire to former students with 72 respondents, 27 said she was their favorite teacher. Respect.

If you haven’t bought the book and seen the movie, Hidden Figures, do both in Women’s History Month. Shetterly, the author responsible for this phenomenon and that amazing moment at the Oscars on Sunday, wrote in the prologue:

“These women’s paths set the stage for mine; immersing myself in their stories helped me understand my own… It’s a great story, and that alone makes it worth telling”.

Cartoon re-imagining an early 20th century laboratory group photo
What’s obscured in our image of the past speaks a thousand words.

Cartoon scientist thinking Eureka!


Follow-up post:

How-To Guide: Help Find Missing Scientists’ Faces

With a Twitter account, @MissingSciFaces, if you’re keen!



Want to learn more about editing Wikipedia? Try the Wikipedia Adventure and there’s the Teahouse for support, too.

The last image are by me, (CC-NC-ND-SA license): my cartoon woman is  photobombing a segment of a mixed-gender, all-white, group photo of researchers from the Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole, Massachusetts) in 1911: from Wikimedia Commons(More of my cartoons at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.) 

The photos in the montage at the top of the post is my own: CC-SA 4.0 license. The photos are identified individually and linked through the post. They are all in Wikimedia Commons:

All other photos are via Wikimedia Commons and linked, except the men of the Geodetic Survey in 1894, from the NOAA photo library.

The 5 Wikipedia pages I ended up starting from scratch along the way were: Angie Turner King, Jane Hinton, Cheryl L. Shavers, Jesse Jarue Mark, and Jessie Isabelle Price.

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


  1. I’m an ISU alum, so I’ll take a crack at getting some more info on Jesse Jarue Mark. I’ve contacted the university archives as a first step

  2. First, thanks for starting this. I can’t wait to share it with some young girls and ladies I know .

    In reference to
    Audrey Forbes Manley , she went on to become President of Spelman College. Look at

    She was the Acting Surgeon General in 1995. You can find more info on this job at She was referenced in the 2015 celebration of that job.
    In most general articles they seem to focus on the education side of her life more

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