Women’s History Month Notable Women Series: Dorothy Vaughan

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, born September 20, 1910, was an African American mathematician who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor agency to NASA.

Prior to arriving at NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, Vaughan worked as a mathematics teacher at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. During the 1940s, Langley began recruiting African-American women with college degrees. Vaughan was hired by Langley to be part of the “Computer Pool.” Prior to the development of electronic computers, the term “computer” referred to people who performed mathematical equations and calculations by hand.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan

As Sarah McLennan, writing for NASA’s website, observed:

Working as a computer, despite its subprofessional status, paid much better than the majority of jobs available to women in the 1940s-1950s. It also provided an entry for women into the field of aeronautical research at a time when most simply were not being hired as engineers, and offered another career option besides teaching for those with degrees in the sciences.”

In 1949, Vaughan became the head of the West Area Computers, a work group composed entirely of African-American female mathematicians. She moved into the area of electronic computing when the first (non-human) computers were introduced at NACA. Vaughan did computer programming, becoming proficient in coding languages such as FORTRAN, and simultaneously raised a family; one of her children went on to also be employed at NASA. Vaughan spent twenty-eight years at Langley. She retired from NASA in 1971, and died November 10, 2008.

Margot Lee Shetterly writes about the African-American women who worked at NASA in her book Hidden Figures (recently made into a movie starring Octavia Spencer, Taraji P Henson and Janelle Monae.) The author reports in her book that in 1940, just 2% of black women got a university degree and more than half became teachers. The women who joined NACA (and later NASA), however, did work underpinning some of the biggest advances in aeronautics.

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