The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race

Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the women who performed the behind-the-scenes work that propelled American aviation triumphs during World War II and Space Age rocketeering. Author Margot Lee Shetterly focuses on a particular group of pioneering women working at NACA/NASA,[*] the African-American women who overcame barriers imposed by both their gender and their race. Called computers, they were mathematicians whose work entailed calculating complex equations for the engineers engaged in the then emerging field of aeronautics.

The Call to Serve

The first female computing pool, then all white, formed due to necessity. Prior to 1935, the male (usually white) engineers performed their own calculations, a tedious task that slowed their research. Historian Beverly E. Golemba notes that “Because of the male shortage and the added attractiveness of paying women less, they rather reluctantly began to hire women as computers.” Despite their qualms, these white women soon proved themselves equal—and better—at the task. Although they earned less than male counterparts despite possessing equivalent bachelor degrees,[†] NACA still paid better than teaching did and permitted them to continue working long after marriage and the arrival of children.

The demand for human computers soon outstripped the supply of qualified white women available. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pressured by black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph’s threat to march on Washington, signed an executive order that desegregated the defense industry and made it possible for black women to become computers. Although advertisements for black computers were more discreet during this segregated era, they nonetheless attracted the attention of Dorothy Vaughn (the first black female supervisor) in 1943,[‡] one of the three computers Shetterly’s book features. Cold War concerns kept NACA’s Langley Research Center (located in Hampton, Virginia) retaining and continuing to hire more computers to process the vast data produced by the research conducted there.

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race. Text by R. Gould
The Friden calculator was one of machines that human computers once used to perform complex calculations.

Calculating Times of Change

As Shetterly follows Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson (famed for calculating flight trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo space missions) through the highlights of their careers into the late 1960s, she also performs the daunting task of capturing a cross-section of the eras in which these women worked. Moving from World War II to the Cold War and Space Race accompanied by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, she laces her narrative with layperson discussions of aeronautical innovations. Shetterly, too, describes the complex calculations (Johnson’s figures are compared to a symphony) while underscoring the human cost of miscalculations: loss of life. At times, one wishes for more biographical and less technical detail, but the perspective is critical for understanding her subject’s work. Shetterly correctly observes that it’s important to learn about the computers who worked at NACA/NASA and document their work—all while recording the obstacles these black women overcame.

Among the book’s poignant moments, Shetterly recounts Katherine Johnson’s[§] journey to Langley from West Virginia in 1953. Once her bus entered Virginia, she entered a segregated state; she and other black passengers were required to move to the bus’s back. Later, they all had to disembark as the bus would not travel through the black part of town. Johnson ignored segregation and gender-based discrimination when she could, unafraid to use a white only bathroom or ask why she, a female computer, could not attend the Space Task Force editorial meetings with the male engineers.

Mary Jackson, a Virginia native and Hampton local hired in 1951, discussed her frustration with unequal work conditions to an engineer who responded with an invitation to join his team; this move launched her career as the first female black engineer. To attain that rank, however, she needed special permission to go to classes at the segregated local high school she’d unable to attend as a teen. The school, which she expected to be superior to the one she matriculated from, was dilapidated: the full cost of segregated school systems was fewer and worse resources for all.

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured” were Dorothy Vaughn’s words to Golemba about her time at Langley. Disappointed that she did not again attain a management position after NASA integrated its staff in 1958, she launched many careers during her time as a supervisor (Katherine Johnson’s included).[**] Vaughn soon observed that computing machines would gain ascendancy, and she made it imperative that she and other human computers learn how to code them, thus making themselves indispensable to NASA. And it would be Johnson’s calculations that would confirm the accuracy of the new machines, giving NASA (not to mention astronaut John Glenn) confidence in the machine’s calculations.

Finally, Zeroing on Hidden Figures

When reading about these women’s accomplishments and considering how often the Space Race has been memorialized, it seems shocking that we didn’t know these women’s names earlier. Of the many computers named in Hidden Figures (both black and white), I only knew of Katherine Johnson beforehand. Shetterly acknowledges, as other authors do, the role that the women’s modesty played. She also adds that many people did know about the work these women undertook (particularly in Hampton, which happens to be the author’s hometown). Yet, this knowledge remained unseen by the public. As Shetterly indicated in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “…I think that it really does have to do with us…not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.”

Shetterly’s remarks here are hardly controversial: women’s work (particularly domestic) long has been undervalued and unappreciated. Writing Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race provides this much needed corrective accounting. Both black and white computers’ contributions alike were forgotten while white men they worked alongside were lauded. As reporter Virginia Biggins explained during a panel that discussed the role of human computers, she “just assumed they were all secretaries”. Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

NOTES:

[*] Respectively, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)

[†] Golemba’s unpublished report indicated most computers pursued mathematical degrees because it was a subject at which they excelled in high school and that most intended to use the degree as part of a teaching career.

[‡] Shetterly discusses other black computers and their careers where appropriate but the book’s scope does not permit spending much time with them. However, her ongoing project, The Human Computer project, strives to capture the history of the women who served as computers.

[§] Katherine Johnson was then Katherine Goble, as her first husband was still alive.

[**] Although Shetterly focuses mostly on black women, she also exposes the gender-based struggles white women encountered where appropriate. When Dorothy Vaughn intervened on Katherine Johnson’s behalf and helped her obtain a permanent position (and promotion) to a team where she’d been temporarily assigned, Vaughn also helped a white computer gain the same appointment. Not having anyone to forward her cause, her request to join the team would otherwise been ignored.

Science Asides: Ethics in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Recently, I chanced upon an Atlas Obscura article discussing lördagsgodis, the Swedish tradition of indulging in candy on Saturdays. What drew my attention, however, was that title mentioned “human experimentation”. As it happens, lördagsgodis’s roots can be traced to experiments performed on mentally ill patients during the mid- to late 1940s that established sugar’s role in cavity formation. The study, which neither benefited its patients (quite the opposite) nor obtained their consent, was not unique to Sweden.[*] In fact, its ethical issues suggested those raised in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the tale of an African-American woman whose cells, collected without her permission in 1951, led to profound scientific discoveries. Given how deeply this nonfictional account delves into medical ethics, politics, racism, and scientific discovery as they intertwine with the lives of Henrietta Lacks and her family, I will focus on the more poignant moments that exemplify these issues.

History, Ethics, and Human Experimentation

As author Rebecca Skloot observes, patients of US public wards often were unaware that they served as research subjects, something some researchers considered to be an acceptable trade for receiving treatment (29–30). Such patients, particularly impoverished, poorly educated African-American patients living in the pre—Civil Rights era in the United States were unlikely to ask questions: the presumption that physicians “knew best” coupled with widespread racism alone prevented such a thing (Skloot 63). And before the advent of Institutional Review Boards in 1966 (Sparks 2017),[†] research involving human participants did not receive much formal oversight (Skloot 131, 136). What happened to Henrietta Lacks, specifically taking her cancer cells without her knowledge or consent, was both the norm however unpalatable we might find it.

For Henrietta, there were more personal consequences related to the treatment that permitted her cells to be collected. Johns Hopkins, the hospital where Henrietta was treated, standardly informed women of childbearing years that hysterectomy led to infertility—one of the rare instances where patients did receive adequate information from physicians in this book. And yet this did not happen in Henrietta’s case. Her records revealed that she would have refused treatment had she known (Skloot 47–8). And although she would not have lived long enough to bear another child (Skloot 86), the choice should have been hers. The tissue sample collected from this hysterectomy, however, continued to grow long past its expected life: the discovery of an immortal line of human cells had been found (Skloot 40–1).

slacks ethics microscope.jpg

Amazing Discoveries and Uncomfortable Juxtapositions

The importance of Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa) to scientific research is vast. For example, HeLa played a large role in proving that Salk’s polio vaccine worked—and it was African-American scientists and technicians who produced the massive quantities of HeLa cells needed to do so (Skloot 93–7). Yet this achievement also represents one of the most painful juxtapositions in The Immortal Life: the HeLa factory was located at The Tuskegee Institute, a place better known for its infamous syphilis study involving African-American men.[‡] The terrible disparity between HeLa’s role in saving the lives of so many people—regardless of their racial background—and the unnecessary deaths of African-American people is more shocking when you consider that twelve of the Tuskegee study participant’s children still receive benefits (CDC 2017).

Disclosure and Family Distress

Not long after Henrietta was identified as the HeLa “donor” in the early 1970s, the Lacks family discovered that her cells were still alive, a revelation they did not understand and found alarming (Skloot 173, 175–81). Further interactions with researchers did little to improve their understanding. When researchers obtained blood samples from Henrietta’s family to establish genetic markers for HeLa, the Lacks family thought they were being tested for cancer (Skloot 180–4). More alarmingly, the resulting study published Henrietta’s name with her genetic information (Skloot 197–8). And more medical information was revealed about Henrietta without consulting the Lacks family. In the 1980s, her medical records were published, something which caused immense grief for Henrietta’s daughter, as Deborah read intimate details about her mother’s diagnosis and the anguish she suffered before her death (Skloot 209–10). Other family members, however, were angered by the profits made by biomedical companies while their family remained impoverished and could not afford health insurance (Skloot 168, 193).

Thoughtfulness and Modern Ethics

And this is perhaps the most concerning theme that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals: thoughtlessness. Mary Kubicek was an assistant who was sent to collect tissue samples during Henrietta’s autopsy in 1951. Unaccustomed to dealing with dead bodies, she focused her gaze away from Henrietta’s eyes. Then, she noticed Henrietta’s painted toenails and realized that Henrietta was an actual person, not just a collection of cells. It was something she had not considered before. It’s astonishing how many researchers (most but not all of whom were white) echoed this refrain and never thought about whether patients and/or their families might have concerns, even after ethical standards were changed. And this best represents what was most needed here, for researchers to think of Henrietta Lacks as a human with rights instead of as HeLa’s source. To think of all patients involved in research as people first.

* * *

Originally, I intended to end where the book does, with the emphasis on the need to see patients as people instead of mere study subjects. Instead, I discovered something of an unpleasant (if unsurprising) postscript: the Lacks family again needed to protest the public distribution of information about Henrietta. In 2013, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published the genome of a line of HeLa cells to an online database that allowed public downloads of this data. Although no laws were broken (Callaway 2013), it seems the researchers did not consider the ethical implications of making genetic data  publicly available that could be potentially reveal private information about Henrietta’s family (Skloot 2013). The database subsequently was removed and the National Institutes of Health, who also planned to publish a similar paper, established a review board (that includes two of Henrietta’s family members) to determine who will gain access to this genetic information in the future (Zimmer 2013). While this hopefully will provide Henrietta’s family with much needed closure on this topic, questions remain about how geneticists should handle such sensitive data for other patients.

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NOTES:

[*] Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, resided at a facility for mentally ill patients where medical experiments were carried out on the African-American patients living there, again without consent. She likely was a study subject. She died in 1955 (Skloot 274–6).

[†] HeLa also played a role in the formation of these boards. The discovery that researcher Chester Southam had been injecting HeLa cells into patients (roughly half of whom were diagnosed with cancer) without disclosure and consent caused a scandal that prompted the National Institutes of Health to create these boards (Skloot 127–36).

[‡] This study’s notoriety primarily stems from (but is not limited to) the fact that researchers purposefully withheld treatment from patients afflicted with syphilis long after a cure was developed in 1947. Ultimately, most patients died terribly, with many having infected both wives and children (Skloot 50, “Tuskegee Syphilis Study” 2017, CDC 2017).

Works Cited

Callaway, Ewen. “HeLa Publication Brews Bioethical Storm.” Nature (2013): n. pag. http://www.nature.com/news/hela-publication-brews-bioethical-storm-1.12689.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm.

“Tuskegee syphilis experiment.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Feb. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment.

Glasser, Hana. “An Adorable Swedish Tradition Has Its Roots in Human Experimentation.” Atlas Obscura. N.p., 04 Jan. 2017. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/an-adorable-swedish-tradition-has-its-roots-in-human-experimentation.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.

Skloot, Rebecca. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/opinion/sunday/the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-the-sequel.html?_r=0.

Sparks, Joel. Timeline of Laws Related to the Protection of Human Subjects. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2017. https://history.nih.gov/about/timelines_laws_human.html.

Zimmer, Carl. Zimmer, Carl. “A Family Consents to a Medical Gift, 62 Years Later.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 07 Aug. 2013. Web. 26 Feb. 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/science/after-decades-of-research-henrietta-lacks-family-is-asked-for-consent.html.