American mathemetician Katherine Johnson

Classic Geek Gal: Katherine Johnson

When you were little, what did you dream of becoming? Did you dream of being a mathematician, a teacher, a parent, or a computational analyst who helped send astronauts into space? Did you imagine yourself winning numerous awards, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Silver Snoopy award, or having buildings named after you?

Maybe you did. And maybe, if you were young Katherine Johnson, you just really, really loved numbers… and you counted steps, counted plates, counted everything. The next thing you know, you’re starting high school at the age of ten and absorbing every bit of math that you can, like you need it to breathe. It’s not surprising that such a young star would play such an important part in early space travel!

Breaking News: Katherine Johnson has been honored with a new spacecraft bearing her name!

This article is part of a series where we look back in history at strong women – from real life, fiction, or the blending of both into legend – who blazed new trails, had great adventures, and stood up for what was right. They are the originals that our grandmothers and generations of women before admired and who became the stepping stones for us, the Geek Gals of today. We shall call these female forbearers our Classic Geek Gals.

I’d like to introduce to you our next Classic Geek Gal: Katherine Johnson, American mathematician for NASA.

Who is she?

American mathematician Katherine Johnson was astronomical in helping astronauts reach space.
American mathematician Katherine Johnson / Photo credit via NASA

Katherine Johnson was an American mathematician whose calculations helped astronauts reach space (and get back home!). In fact, there is a favorite story of John Glenn going through the preflight checklist of the Friendship 7 mission and insisting to the engineers they needed to “get the girl” because he wanted her to run the numbers herself to make sure they were right. “If she says they’re good… then I’m ready to go.” Her many achievements such as the one were brought to public light in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race and the subsequent film Hidden Figures

She showed early signs of brilliance.

Katherine Johnson grew up as the youngest of four children in West Virginia in the 1920s. Her mother was a former teacher and her father was a farmer and janitor. It would be easy to see that the odds were stacked against Katherine. Quickly identified as a math prodigy, her parents were determined to make sure she and her siblings had the best education despite the local schools only offering classes up to 8th grade for African American students. Her father enrolled all of them in a school that was 125 miles away. They spent the school semesters in Institute, West Virginia, and the summers back at home in White Sulphur Springs.

Not only did Katherine start school at six years old in the second grade (due to her advanced reading abilities), she completely skipped fifth grade and entered high school by the age of ten. The faculty tried to help her, too. They taught her about constellations during walks home and later created mathematical courses just for her. Katherine eventually earned a Bachelor of Science in French and mathematics. She later became one of the first Black people to enroll in West Virginia University’s graduate program when it was desegregated.

She persevered through sexism and segregation.

When the National Visionary Leadership Project interviewed her, they reported:

At first she [Johnson] worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts.” Their main job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other precise mathematical tasks. Then one day, Katherine (and a colleague) were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues to the extent that, “they forgot to return me to the pool”. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them. Katherine was assertive, asking to be included in editorial meetings (where no women had gone before). She simply told people she had done the work and that she belonged.

Johnson spent her time as a computer living through segregation as part of “the computing pool (who) were required to work, eat, and use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers. Their office was labeled as ‘Colored Computers’.”

She loved her life.

Once she got started, Katherine never stopped. She went on to co-author 26 scientific papers and only retired from NASA after having worked there for 33 years. She is reported as saying, “I loved going to work every single day.” Even after retiring Katherine loved to inspire young people by sharing stories about her career. Her frequent lessons included the importance of being “self-reliant and to learn everything they can. She says, ‘Luck is a combination of preparation and opportunity. If you’re prepared and the opportunity comes up, it’s your good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time and to have been prepared for the job.’”

February is Black History Month!

mathematician Katherine Johnson
American mathematician Katherine Johnson / Photo credit: NASA/AFP via Getty Images

Not only is it a great time to teach your kids about Black history, you can also celebrate African American History Month in a multitude of ways. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Donate to a great cause like the NAACP (which supports multiple issues for all ages) or Black Girls Code (which empowers girls of color in STEM fields).
  • Support a business of color. Our personal favorite is Puzzles of Color, a brother and sister team who make puzzles that represent people of color. (I just bought “Haute” by Bryant, and I can’t wait to assemble it!)
  • Enjoy some anime with strong Black characters.
  • Watch a movie (or three or four) with themes about racial identity. We just reviewed a powerful film titled Passing that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival
  • Read some poetry by African American poets. Whether it’s a legendary poet like Maya Angelou or a brilliant rising star like Amanda Gorman, there is so much fantastic poetry out there just waiting to be read.
  • And so much more!

Read more of Courtney’s articles.

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