Woman of the Week | Katherine Johnson


Our 'Woman of the Week' series celebrates the women of the past and present that epitomise The Unstated woman. Resilient, benevolent, progressive and inspirational, these women are pioneers of the modern age. 



This week we commemorate the life and momentous achievements of mathematician Katherine Johnson, who calculated the exact trajectories that would lead to Apollo 11's successful landing on the moon in 1969 and safe return to Earth. 


Though one of the most significant mathematicians of the last century, Johnson's achievements were overlooked for decades due to both her gender and her race. 


Born Creola Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918, in West Virginia to middle-class African-American parents, Katherine Johnson was set with racial adversities from a young age; Greenbier County of which her family resided did not accept African-American children into public schools past the age of eight which lead Johnson's parents to enroll her in a school in the nearby unincorporated community of Institute. The school that she attended in Institute was the West Virginia State College Campus, where Johnson eventually attended and took every maths course that the college offered. As a predominantly and historically African American college, Katherine Johnson's natural flair for maths was nurture by her tutors and she had several inspirational mentors such as Angie King Turner. Graduating at the age of 18 with a degree in Mathematics and French it's evident that Johnson was a talented mathematician from a very young age. She went on to become the first African-American woman to graduate from West Virginia and was the only woman out of three African-American students to be selected to integrate the university. 


Following this Katherine Johnson decided to embark on a career as a research mathematican but struggled to find work as this was a very difficult field for both African Americans and women to break into. She worked as a teacher until finding work as a 'computer' – a term for people who computed mathematical calculations before the invention of the computer – excelling in this position, she then worked as an aerospace technologist at NASA. 


One of very few female and non-white employees at NASA, particularly mathematicians, Johnson faced several trials during her time at the institution; simple tasks such as going to the bathroom were arduous due to the segregated restrictions – the 'coloured' lavatories were a long distance from the office she was based in – and her employees enhanced the segregation with their personal ill-treatment towards her. However, none of this discouraged Katherine Johnson or stopped her from carrying out her tasks and to an exceptionally high standard. During her time at NASA Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectory for the Alan Shepard's (the first American in space) May 1961 space flight, his Mercury mission in the same year and the Apollo 11 flight to the moon in 1969. 


Johnson eventually gained respect from her colleagues and eventually recognition for her contribution to some of America's most noted scientific and aeronautics feats. 


In 1999, Katherine Johnson was named West Virginia State College Outstanding Alumnus of the Year and in 2015, Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also cited as someone "who have made outstanding contributions to flight safety and mission success" by NASA and was included in the BBC's list of '100 women of influence' in 2016. In the same year, a book titled 'Hidden Figures' by Margot Lee Shetterly was released. The book chronicled the lives and achievements of Johnson and two other African-America mathematicians who worked at NASA (Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan) and was followed by an award-winning film adaptation, which made Katherine Johnson's accomplishments become recognised to a vast audience. 


Katherine Johnson sadly passed away earlier this year in February at the age of 101 and was described by NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine as "an American hero", stating that "her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten" and it certainly will not be.