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Dorothy Vaughan was an African-American teacher, computer programmer, and mathematician who worked for the both the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) and its predecessor the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She taught herself the FORTRAN programming language to integrate computers into her research. Dorothy Vaughan served as the first African-American woman supervisor of NASA’s West Area Computers. Her work with NASA is depicted in the film Hidden Figures alongside fellow mathematicians, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson.

Youth and Education

Dorothy Vaughan always put her family before her career.

Dorothy Vaughan was born Dorothy Johnson in Kansas City, Missouri, on September 20, 1910, to parents Leonard and Anne Johnson. [1] The family relocated to Morgantown, West Virginia in 1917. Johnson showed academic promise growing up and graduated from Beechurst High School at only 14 years old in 1925.[2] Wilberforce University, a private college for African-Americans in Xenia, Ohio, offered her a full scholarship.

Dorothy Johnson accepted and enrolled in the university to major in mathematics. Again, she excelled in her studies.[3] In 1926, she joined the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority’s Zeta Chapter.[4] One of her professors during her last two years recommended her for Howard University’s new mathematics Master’s program. As Johnson graduated from Wilberforce with a Bachelors, the Great Depression struck the U.S. hard. Her parents struggled to find work, so Johnson chose to get a second degree in education and find a steady job as a teacher at R.R. Morton High School located in Farmville, Virginia.[5]

Marriage and Career Beginnings

In 1932, Dorothy Johnson married Howard S. Vaughan, Jr.[6] The couple produced six children, Michael, Donald, Ann, Maida Kathryn, Leonard, and Kenneth. [7] Dorothy Vaughan continued to teach while raising her children and helping to support her family.

Vaughan’s life changed in May 1943 when she saw an article in the Journal and Guide from Norfolk discussing the black women “Paying the Way for Women Engineers” at the Bemis Laboratory in the Hampton Institute. She learned about the war training classes opening up opportunities for women not there previously. So Vaughan sent two job applications out with one going to Camp Pickett in Blackstone, Virginia, and then another general one that included her impressive resume and desire to start working “within 48 hours.”[8]

Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory

Dorothy Vaughan and her black and white female coworkers proved their intelligence and value to NASA during World War II.

Racial discrimination permeated most private industries within the U.S. as well as governmental ones. In 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to prepare the U.S. as best as possible to fight in the quickly erupting Second World War. He wanted to ensure any and all citizens who could contribute to the war effort were allowed to do so regardless of their skin color or gender.[9] He signed Executive Order 8802, which desegregated the defense industry.[10] He also issued Executive Order 9346, criminalizing racial discrimination and segregation when hiring and promoting within the various federal agencies.[11]

In 1943, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory hired Dorothy Vaughan as a mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).[12] She apprenticed with NACA for seven moths to understand pertinent mathematical concepts more clearly. Much of her early work focused on flight and the ability of machines to fly since U.S. military strategists believed World War II would be won by the air.[13]

Vaughan worked alongside many other highly skilled African-American and white women who performed the complex calculations in the West Computing Section at Langley.[14] They used calculators, film readings, and slide rulers to perform the calculations then used by NACA engineers to conduct performance tests and discover the variables affecting life and drag on various aircraft.[15]After the war ended, Vaughan and her female coworkers felt determined to hold onto their jobs, but the laboratory grew so accustomed to their employment the gender discrimination did not appear again.[16]

Supervisor of the West Computing Section and NASA

In 1949, the white, female head of the West Computing Section died. Only six weeks later, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory appointed Dorothy Vaughan as the temporary supervisor for the West Computing Section.

Dorothy Vaughan and the women working at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory had no role models to guide them in the male-dominated profession, so they created their own pathways.

An African-American woman never held that position previously and it took her new supervisor, Rufus House, two years to make her the official head in January 1951.

During Vaughan’s tenure as supervisor, she worked tirelessly to support and promote both black and white women within the laboratory. She worked closely with respected, white mathematicians Sara Bullock and Vera Hunkle on many different projects, including the creation of a handbook detailing algebraic methods to be used by computing machines.

In 1958, the NACA became NASA. The transition meant the desegregation of all facilities within the laboratory. Vaughan and several of her fellow West Computing colleagues formed part of the new Analysis and Computation Division, which employed both blacks and whites, men and women.[17]

Vaughan taught herself the FORTRAN computer programming language, the most widely used during that time, and taught her team how to use it effectively. She also contributed to the design and successful launching of SCOUT. SCOUT, Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test, was a rocket designed to launch satellites into orbit around the Earth.[18]

Retirement, Death, and Honors

In 1971, Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA.[19] She pursued interests outside of mathematics like joining the Phyllis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Organization’s group, the Silver Bells. The St. Paul AME Church, located in Newport News, honored Vaughan in 1993 for being a member of the congregation for 50 years and her many contributions to the community.

Dorothy Vaughan died on November 10, 2008, only two years away from 100 years old. According to her obituary, the funeral of Dorothy Vaughan took place at the Cooke Brothers Funeral Chapel and St. Paul AME Church. She is buried in Hampton Memorial Gardens in Newport News, Virginia.[20] Dorothy Vaughan’s life story features in the book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race and the 2016 film of the same name. Vaughan’s character is played by actress Octavia Spencer[21][22]

References

Bibliography

Daily Press. (2008, November 12). Dorothy J. Vaughan Obituary. Legacy.[2]

Shetterly, M. L.(2016). Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. United States: William Morrow.


Shetterly, M. L., & NASA (2016, November 22). Dorothy Vaughan Biography. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.[3]

Footnotes

  1. Shetterly, 2016
  2. Daily Press, 2008
  3. Shetterly, 2016
  4. Daily Press, 2008
  5. Shetterly, 2016
  6. Shetterly, 2016
  7. Daily Press, 2008
  8. Shetterly, 2016
  9. Shetterly, 2016
  10. Shetterly & NASA, 2016
  11. Shetterly, 2016
  12. Shetterly & NASA, 2016
  13. Shetterly, 2016
  14. Shetterly, 2016
  15. Daily Press, 2008
  16. Shetterly, 2016
  17. Shetterly, 2016
  18. Shetterly & NASA, 2016
  19. Shetterly & NASA, 2016
  20. Daily Press, 2008
  21. IMDB. (2016). Hidden Figures - Cast. International Movie Database.[1]
  22. Shetterly, 2016

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