This week’s #WCWinSTEM is Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, NASA mathematician.
As compiled by Chrystelle Vilfranc
Today we’ll continue highlighting the remarkable Black-women mathematicians at the center of Margot Lee Shetterly‘s Hidden Figures. Our #WCWinSTEM is Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, a mathematician who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor of NASA. Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri. She graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio and worked as a mathematics teacher at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia.
In response to President Roosevelt’s signing of the Executive Order 8802 (prohibiting racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry), the Langley laboratory began hiring black women to meet the demand for processing aeronautical research data.Vaughan started working at the NACA’s Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943. She was assigned to the West Area Computing Unit, a work group composed of African-American female mathematicians. Vaughan did computer programming and had become proficient in coding languages such as FORTRAN. The West Area Computing unit distinguished themselves with amazing contributions to every area of research at Langley.
Vaughan was appointed the title of section head of the West Computing Unit in 1949. She was NASA’s first African-American manager. As the section head, she was able to gain centerwide visibility, allowing her to collaborate with other well-known computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on different projects including compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was never silent when it came to advocating for the women of the West Computing unit, and even on behalf of White computers in different groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations when assigning women for projects and challenging assignments. She was often requested to personally handle the work.
Vaughan continued to head the West Computing unit for almost a decade. Katherine Johnson (last week’s #WCWinSTEM) was assigned to Vaughan’s group before being transferred to Langley’s Flight Research Division. Vaughan continued at Langley after NACA became NASA in 1958. The transition to NASA called for segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, to be abolished. Vaughan and the rest of the West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), which was a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing.
Vaughan became an expert at FORTRAN and contributed to the space program through her work on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program. The remainder of her career at NASA centered on electronic computing and FORTRAN programming. Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971. Although she never received another management position at Langley, her legacy lives on in the successes of notable former West Computing unit members: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Eunice Smith, Kathryn Peddrew, and second-generation mathematician and engineer: Christine Darden.
We are grateful for the life and legacy of Dorothy Vaughan! She has truly paved the way for many!
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