Mary W. Jackson: mathematician and engineer

Henry – Year 11 Student

Editor’s note: This short essay was recently entered into the GSAL Black History Essay Writing Competition, organized by The GSAL Journal and UPSoc to coincide with Black History Month. Open to all students in Year 10-13, the purpose of the competition was to encourage students to undertake independent research, think critically and communicate clearly about an aspect of black history of interest to them. The Competition Poster provides more information about the competition brief and success criteria. CPD

Mary W. Jackson (Mary) was the first female African-American Mathematician and engineer who was born on April 9 1921 and died on February 11 2005.  In 1951 she landed a job working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) where she was a member of their West Area Computing unit. The women in this unit provided data that was essential for the early success for the U.S space program. During this time the NACA was heavily segregated which meant the Black employees were required to use separate toilets and dining room.

She graduated with multiple bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical science and she was also a member of the first sonority group found by and for African American women. After she graduated she taught maths at a black school in Maryland (because at the time there was black and white schools due to lots of segregation). Then in 1951 she was recruited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). She started  as a research mathematician.

Mary Jackson along with other black female mathematicians would calculate the flight trajectories. She would also specialize in analysing aerodynamic data from wind tunnel experiments and real flight data. She focused on understanding airflow. People say she was a ‘human computer’. She helped Apollo 11 get to the moon. By 1978 she had changed position to be a HR administrator and served as manager of the federal women’s program in the office of equal opportunity programs. She retired in 1985, but after that she helped other women and minorities advance their careers and advise them to study harder so they could land the jobs they wanted as they would be more desirable then and also have a better chance of promotion. During her career she was also part of many other organizations’ boards and committees, including the Girl Scouts of America, and was honoured by many charities and organizations for her leadership and service.

In my opinion she was one of the most important Black females in science because she helped land the Apollo 11 landings and played a key part in leading Black females and other minorities into job promotions and better jobs still during times when there was still lots of racism in America. She was so important that they made a movie and a book about her named ‘Hidden Figures’; this bought awareness to the Black female mathematicians and scientists at the time who, before the book and movie came out, people didn’t really know who she was and what she did. Henry

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