In the 1940s, a group of female scientists were the human computers behind the biggest advances in aeronautics. Hidden Figures, an upcoming book and film tells their remarkable, untold story
Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, Margot Lee Shetterly was surrounded by brilliant female scientists and mathematicians who, like her father, worked for Nasa. I would see them in the context of community organisations or church, or youd run into them at the grocery store they were my parents friends, she says. It didnt seem unusual to her that, within her community, so many women had enjoyed long careers at Langley, Nasas research centre and so many of them were black women. It was her husband, on a trip back to visit Lee Shetterlys parents, who pointed out how remarkable it was.
In 1940, she points out in her book, Hidden Figures, just 2% of black women got a university degree and more than half became teachers. But a few defied all expectations and obstacles and joined Naca (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would become Nasa). Their work underpinned some of the biggest advances in aeronautics, during some of the most defining moments of the 20th century the second world war, the cold war, the space race, the civil rights movement, and the adoption of electronic computing.
While some of this generation of female black scientists were recognised in 2015, Katherine Johnson was awarded the USs highest civilian honour, the Presidential medal of freedom for her work, which included calculations that helped the moon landing the fact that there was a crack team of all-female, all-black maths whizzes is largely unknown. For a long time, African Americans were not allowed to read and write, says Lee Shetterly. We forget but it was not that long ago. Women were barred from studying at many colleges. If you are not able to read and write, then you are not going to be able to tell your own story. There havent been critical masses of women, minorities, whatever, and I think thats something that is changing now.