Katherine Johnson: Human Calculator and Trailblazer

This article is part of the “Building from Diversity” project.

Written by Cristina Fernández-Suárez, PhD Student at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) & Instituto de Física Teórica (IFT).


Katherine Johnson, NASA employee, in 1966. Credit: NASA, restored by Adam Cuerden (via Wikimedia Commons).

Can you imagine having a dream as a child that you are forbidden to pursue? That was the story of Katherine Johnson, an African American girl born in 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. A girl who, since she was little, liked counting everything: the steps she took, the dishes she washed, the stars she saw [1]… Katherine demonstrated her talent and passion for mathematics from a very young age. However, she grew up in a time and place where there were laws of racial segregation, which prevented African Americans from studying beyond the eighth grade [2]. But this was not going to stop her. Her family decided to move to Institute, where the West Virginia Colored Institute for African Americans was located [3]. There, she graduated at just 14 years old and began her higher education at West Virginia State College, where she earned her degrees in mathematics and French at the age of 18. Regardless of her credentials, one of the only options available to Katherine as an African American woman was to teach [4]. Hence, once she finished her studies, she had no choice but to work under the racist and discriminatory restrictions of the time. As a teacher of mathematics, music and French, she earned less money than her white peers and had to hide her marriage, since married women were not allowed to teach [5].

Sometime later, she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was looking for African American women for calculation tasks in the Department of Guidance and Navigation, and decided to sign up [4]. At that time, African Americans were separated from white people: they had segregated cafeteria tables, bus seats, bathrooms and were prohibited from mixing whatsoever [5]. Her job was to perform calculations and checks for aeronautical engineers, a quiet job done by a quiet group of women. However, she was curious and had questions, so she asked to be able to attend meetings with the engineers so that she could join the discussions. Initially they refused, to which she challenged whether there was a law that prohibited it. There was not, so she began attending those meetings [4] and, over time, her persistence, math skills and quality work built her a reputation at NACA/NASA. She participated in NASA’s Mercury Project, performing by hand the calculations that allowed Alan B. Shepherd, the first American in space, to make his space journey in 1961 [3]. Later, in 1962, when computers began to be used for these types of calculations, Katherine assumed a supervisory role. The same year, her skills helped John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth [3, 6]. Moreover, her calculations were key to the success of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, which landed humankind on the Moon [3]. She continued working on other missions until her retirement in 1986, receiving numerous awards and honors for her exceptional work and contributions to the U.S. space programme.

Barack Obama presents former NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, November 24, 2015 [3]. Credit: NASA (via Wikipedia Commons).

Katherine Johnson has been described as a true genius with a great vocation for mathematics, but also as an intrepid person, an example of courage and humility [6]. After fighting against double segregation for being a woman and an African American in a world of white men, she said: “I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. I have never had it. I’m as good as anyone, but not better. ” [2]


Can you imagine having a dream, being forbidden to pursue it since you were a child, and still being able to achieve it? This is the true story of Katherine Johnson, a girl who counted everything that could be counted, a woman who fought for her dreams in spite of the racial and gender discrimination she faced. An inspiring story that should not be forgotten and that should remind us how much talent and progress the world may have missed out on by not letting a child fulfill her dream.



Article reviewed by Alejandra Aguirre-Santaella, PhD at the UAM and IFT.



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