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Katherine G. Johnson
Credit: B.Ingalls/NASA

Presidential Medal of Freedom honors a NASA 'computer'

In 1953, when Katherine G. Johnson went to work at the agency that would later become NASA, a “computer” was someone who solved math problems and “wore a skirt,” she recalled in a 2008 profile published by NASA. As her career advanced, she was called on to check up on the electronic computers coming into use. Her computation proved so exact and outstanding that, last month, the 97-year-old African-American mathematician received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the U.S. government presents to civilians.

“Johnson exhibited exceptional technical leadership and is known especially for her calculations of the 1961 trajectory for Alan Shepard’s flight (first American in space), the 1962 verification of the first flight calculation made by an electronic computer for John Glenn’s orbit (first American to orbit the earth), and the 1969 Apollo 11 trajectory to the moon,” according to a White House statement. “In her later NASA career, Johnson worked on the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite and encouraged students to pursue careers in science and technology fields.”

I found what I was looking for at [NASA]. … Never did I get up and say I don't want to go to work.

–Katherine G. Johnson

As we noted not long ago, the federal space agency had a strong record of hiring African-Americans for technical positions during the days of segregation. In the summer of 1951, Johnson heard from a relative that “there’s a government facility … that has just begun to hire black women, and they want mathematicians,” she said in a National Visionary Leadership Project video interview. She put in her application, and when the computer job came through the following year, she chose it over an offer to teach at a high school. “I was finally going to find out what a research mathematician did,” she said.

Working in a group of African-American women assigned to do calculations, she distinguished herself through her lively intellectual interest in the work. “The [other] women did what they were told to do,” Johnson said in another NASA interview. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.” Then, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared the then-astounding goal of landing a man on the moon within the decade. As NASA geared up to meet the challenge, Johnson, who had become “the only woman at the time to ever be pulled from the computing pool to work on other programs,” was made part of the team planning the space flight. Her 33-year career with NASA included numerous prestigious awards. “I found what I was looking for at [NASA],” Johnson recalls in the 2008 NASA profile. “I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say I don't want to go to work.”

Her intellectual prowess had emerged early in life and received strong encouragement from her family. Eighth grade was as far as an African-American could go in the schools of her native town, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, so her father, Joshua, moved the family to Institute, West Virginia, which offered not only high school for black students, but the all-black state college. Joshua lived apart from the family and worked as a farmer 120 miles away in White Sulphur Springs while Katherine’s mother, Joylette, lived in Institute, where she worked as a domestic. Katherine entered high school at 10, graduated at 14, and earned her bachelor’s degree in math at 18, from West Virginia State College (now the historically black West Virginia State University).

She was inspired to pursue research mathematics by the distinguished mathematician William W. Schieffelin Claytor, a University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Ph.D. who was one of Johnson’s professors and the third African-American man to earn a doctorate in mathematics. Claytor recognized Johnson’s exceptional mathematical talent and sharp curiosity. “You'd make a good research mathematician and I'm going to see that you're prepared,” he told her, as she reported in the NASA profile.

The career satisfaction that Johnson enjoyed apparently eluded her mentor, Claytor, however. “[A] brilliant student,” according the Penn archives, he won the “most prestigious award offered at Penn at the time” and wrote a dissertation in topology that “delighted the Penn faculty.” Despite these accomplishments, however, he received only one faculty offer, from West Virginia State. He also published a notable research paper—the first ever published by an African American—that introduced figures still known as Claytor curves

Supported by a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for talented African-Americans, he pursued postdoctoral studies at the University of Michigan, which had a distinguished topology group. Members of the group recommended him “for a faculty position at Michigan,” according to a biographical sketch by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). “The administration was afraid of the possible reaction and took a firm stand that no such appointment would be made. The same reaction came from other research institutions that were considered. This meant that Claytor could not get a position with other topologists during his time. After encountering this experience and after leaving Michigan, Claytor apparently lost interest in research.” He continued to teach, however, spending the bulk of his career as a faculty member at Howard University, where he was department chair. He retired in 1965 and died in 1967, as Johnson and NASA were working trajectories. 

That doesn’t mean he didn’t leave his own lasting legacy. “Because his published works were the first known mathematical research published by a black man and because of his mathematical insight as attested by other great mathematicians of his day, in 1980 [the National Association of Mathematicians] named its first Lecture Series in honor of Claytor,” the MAA sketch continues. “Today the Claytor Lecture is still NAM's most well known Lecture.”