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Black History Month - The Hidden Figures

Updated: Oct 30, 2021

We wanted to pay tribute to some of the hidden figures of history, some of the lesser-known geniuses who helped shape our world today.

These pioneers pushed their way through to success and world-changing discoveries despite the harsh realities they faced because of the colour of their skin.

As an agency, we are as passionate about medicine, healthcare and technology as we are about diversity and equal opportunities, so our list focuses on some of the many black innovators who have made revolutionary discoveries in these sectors.

Our compilation is inspired by the Oscar-winning film Hidden Figures, based on the true story of three female African-American mathematicians who played a pivotal role in making space travel safe in the early 1960s. The film shows how, despite the discrimination they faced in their working and educational environments (as well as in the world in general), these inspiring women made astounding breakthroughs.

The film puts their achievements into the context of the many obstacles they overcame in the face of the prevalent racial prejudice of the time. It’s a great watch too - moving and uplifting in equal measures - so if you haven’t seen it already, we highly recommend.

The ‘Human Computer’ - Katherine Johnson

One of the most celebrated figures in black history month, Katherine Johnson was known as the ‘Human Computer’. The first woman to join Nasa’s Space Task Group, Johnson earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped develop complex computer programmes. Johnson’s orbital mechanics discoveries were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S. crewed spaceflights. Her work also included calculating trajectories, launch windows and emergency return paths for spaceflights including those for astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space and John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Johnson also contributed the Apollo and Lunar missions to the moon, among other missions. Her contribution to NASA, along with a group of other black females, inspired the multi award-winning film Hidden Figures.

Open Heart Surgery – World first – Dr Daniel Williams

Dr Daniel Williams was one of the first physicians to perform a successful open-heart surgery. He also founded the first black-owned hospital, Provident Hospital in Chicago in 1893, which was also the first medical facility with an interracial staff. He later became chief surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington D.C. Dr Williams e earned his medical degree from Chicago Medical College went on to be the first black member of the American College of Surgeons as well as co-founding the National Medical Association with Robert Boyd, MD.

All Blood is Equal – Charles Drew

It’s thanks to Charles Drew that blood transplants are so widely available. Drew was a physician, surgeon and medical researcher who worked with a team at Red Cross on ground-breaking discoveries around blood transfusions. In World War II, he played a major role in developing the first large-scale blood banks and blood plasma programs.

Drew was one of the most prominent doctors working in his field (and one of the only African-Americans), at a time when blood donation was still racially separated. Drew eventually resigned from his position with the American Red Cross over their insistence on adhering to the policy that white patients could not receive blood from black donors and vice versa. It was 1950 before the Red Cross finally recognized all blood as equal.

Get Ready – Modern Traffic Signal – Garrett Morgan

On November 20, 1923, the U.S. Patent Office grants Patent No. 1,475,074 to 46-year-old inventor and newspaperman Garrett Morgan for his three-position traffic signal. Though Morgan’s was not the first traffic signal (that one had been installed in London in 1868), it was an important innovation nonetheless. By having a third position besides just “Stop” and “Go,” it regulated crossing vehicles more safely than earlier signals.

After witnessing an accident on a roadway, Morgan decided a device was needed to keep cars, buggies and pedestrians from colliding. His traffic signal was designed to stand on a street corner and notify vehicles and walkers whether they should stop or go. After receiving a patent in 1923, the rights to the invention were eventually purchased by General Electric.

Her Eyes on the Prize – Ophthalmologist and Inventor, Dr Patricia Bath

Dr Patricia Bath was the first black female physician awarded a patent for a medical invention. Dr Bath's accomplishments include the invention of a new device for cataract surgery, the Laserphaco Probe, a surgical tool that uses a laser to vaporise cataracts via a 1mm insertion into a patient’s eye. After using the Laserphaco Probe to remove a cataract, the patient’s lens can be removed and a replacement lens inserted. Dr Bath was also the first woman appointed chair of ophthalmology at a U.S. medical institution (UCLA) in 1983. She retired from her post 10 years later and has since become an advocate for telemedicine, serving in roles related to the emerging technology at Howard University and St. George's University in Grenada.

Pioneering surgery separate conjoined twins – Dr Ben Carson

Dr Ben Carson, MD was the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins attached at the back of the head. The revolutionary surgical separation took place in 1987. He earned his bachelor's degree at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and his medical degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and later completed his residency in neurosurgery at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr Carson was also one of the youngest physicians to direct paediatric neurosurgery at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Hospital.

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