DOROTHY VAUGHAN Head of West Computing
For those of you who know your history, or perhaps if you saw the 2016 film Hidden Figures, you’ll likely already know who Dorothy Vaughan is. For those of you who might not, she was an integral part of the team of female human computers that contributed towards the success of early US space missions, and was NASA’s first black supervisor (and one of the few female supervisors at the time).
Dorothy Vaughan (née Johnson) was born on September 20 in 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, and at the age of 7 moved with her family to West Virginia. She went on to study mathematics at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, graduating in 1929, and despite the recommendations of her professors for her to continue postgraduate education, she chose to teach maths at Robert Russa Moten High School to help support her family during the great depression, and in 1932 she married Howard Vaughan, having six children together.
When America joined the war in 1941, men were being recruited into military service and it led to a shortage of workers across the country; this meant that more women were being employed, including at the Langley research centre at NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which became part of NASA in 1958) where they hired a pool of female computers to do calculations.
Vaughan secured a role as a mathematician at Langley in 1943 and joined a team of talented African American women, including Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. In an era where segregation in the work place was commonplace, and despite the Executive Order 8802 banning discriminatory hiring practices in the defence industry being signed in 1941, Vaughan and the rest of her team still faced daily prejudice at work. Although they were doing the same job as their white female counterparts, they were assigned to the West computing unit away while their white coworkers worked in the East computing unit, and were even assigned separate toilets and cafeterias tables.
Over the course of her NACA (then NASA) career, Vaughan specialised in complex calculations for flight paths, analysing data for aerospace engineers, the Scout Project, and FORTRAN computer programming, and in 1949 was promoted to supervisor of the West computing unit, the first African American to do so in NACA. With the increasing use of computers at NASA, Vaughan also spotted the potential for computers to take over the computing roles that her team were doing, so she learnt FORTRAN programming and taught her team to ensure their jobs.
She kept her role as head of West Computing until 1958, when NACA became part of NASA and combined the segregated units; she and her team at that point joined the NASA Analysis and Computation Division, a group made up of men and women of all races, where she remained until retiring in 1971. On 10th November 2008, she passed away at the age of 98.
It’s clear from reading this (long yet still quite condensed) post that there are many things about Dorothy Vaughan that make her an inspiration to women in STEM today. Back then, the emerging field of technology was a difficult area to work in as a woman, and even more so for an African American woman, which makes the achievements of her and her team all the more valuable. And not to forget, she did all this while raising six children!
If you want to read more about inspirational women in STEM, have a read of one of my previous posts about three more inspirational women in STEM! Have a lovely week everyone!