This Black History Month has been a whirlwind. Before it ends and a new chapter begins I want to take some time to pay homage to some notable Black figures who helped paved the way for human progression. Space travel, communication, and advancements in medicine have all benefited from inquisitive black minds unafraid of reaching for new plateaus. So that’s where I will centralize the focus of this particular blog. First, we will cover the woman who was pivotal in our exploration of the great beyond.
Katherine Coleman, who later took the surname Johnson, was a physicist and mathematician from West Virginia. Born in 1918, Mrs. Johnson was most famously known for calculating trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for NASA manned missions, including the first American in space (Alan Shepard) and the first American in orbit (John Glenn)…by Hand. In fact the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which was the predecessor of NASA, hired her in 1953 to be a part of their Guidance and Navigation Department. She broke both racial and gender barriers with assertiveness and intellect, to the point where astronauts refused to fly unless Mrs. Johnson verified the calculations given by NASA computers. Mrs. Johnson celebrated her 100th birthday last year. We will continue with an inventor who helped pioneer the use of today’s cell phones.
Dr. Henry Sampson was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1934. He is a nuclear engineer, writer, film historian and documentary producer. The Gamma-electric Cell, which he co-invented with George Miley, is the pivotal technology that was used in the creation of the cellular phone. This cell converts high radiation energy, or Gamma Rays, into electricity. Other patents he owns are related to solid rocket motors. Dr. Sampson worked as a research engineer at the US Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, California, and also a project engineer at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California, where he later became the Director of Planning and Operations from 1981-1987. During that time his team focused on the powering and launching of satellites. By the way the Gamma-electrical cell is the technology that made it possible to use radio waves to transmit and receive audio signals, so Marty Cooper could not have made the cell phone for Motorola without him. Finally we transition to a woman who was not a doctor, but saved millions of lives unknowingly.
Henrietta Lacks was a Black woman who was afflicted with cervical cancer. Born in 1920 she was a tobacco farmer in rural Virginia. At the age of 31 she was admitted to the John Hopkins Hospital where she was diagnosed and treated, but the treatment was not particularly helpful. Cancer cells retrieved from a biopsy were sent to Dr. George Gey, who discovered a mind blowing medical find. Whereas most cells perished after a few short days at best, Mrs. Lacks’ cells actually doubled every 20-24 hours. They were called “immortal” because of this trait. This discovery was withheld from the family until 1975, when information was disclosed at a dinner party to some family members unwittingly. This sparked a tremendous debate about consent and confidentiality. Within the years before her family was informed her cells were mass produced and used as research material to study various other cancers, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other experiments. The ‘HeLa’ cells were also pivotal in finding the Polio vaccine. Mrs. Lacks died at 31, but her “immortal” cells have been essential to scientific research and advancements since the 1950s. Her family has never been compensated for the use of her cells, unfortunately.
To conclude, Black History Month is more than just Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman. There are so many black people, living and deceased, that have enhanced our country and world. It doesn’t have to end with February. With just a little research we can find influential black figures in every crevice of American history. To those who have paved the way for further expansion of the human paradigm, I want to say a heartfelt “Thank You”.