Diversity of thought has always been a cornerstone of science; however, diversity amongst scientists has often gone unnoticed. Martin Luther King’s birthday was just celebrated in remembrance of his leadership in the African American community. However, he is not the only pioneer who has brought about great and lasting change. Below are just two examples of the great scientists and innovators in the African American community who have graced the history of science for the betterment of mankind.

George Washington Carver: (1864-1943)
Agricultural Chemist and Innovator

On the epitaph on the grave of George Washington Carver it reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

Through his work as an agricultural chemist, Dr. George Washington Carver changed the agriculture of the South by discovering three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. From the peanut Dr. Carver created meal, instant and dry coffee, bleach, tar remover, wood filler, metal polish, paper, ink, shaving cream, rubbing oil, linoleum, synthetic rubber, and plastics. From the soybean he obtained flour, breakfast food, and milk. He also significantly boosted the agricultural economy by formulating the crop rotation method, which revolutionized agricultural practice. He educated the farmers to alternate the soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops such as peanuts, peas, soybeans, sweet potato, and pecans. He did not profit from these discoveries but freely gave them for the benefit of mankind, and it was said he turned down a $100,000 salary in order to continue his agricultural work. Rising from slavery in Diamond, Missouri, Doctor Carver struggled to gain an education and used it to give back to the land. Dr. Carver died in 1943 and was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute where he worked as the Director of Agriculture. On July 17, 1960 the George Washington Carver National Monument was dedicated at Dr. Carver’s birth site. This was the first U.S. federal monument dedicated to an African-American.

Matthew Henson

Matthew Alexander Henson (1866-1955)
Arctic Explorer

“As I stood at the top of the world and thought of the hundreds of men who had lost their lives in the effort to reach it, I felt profoundly grateful that I, as the personal attendant of the commander, had the honor of representing my race in the historic achievement.”

Matthew Henson was the first man to reach the geographic North Pole with long time colleague and explorer Robert Peary. Henson was born of poor parents in Charles County, Maryland. His parents died at the age of twelve and he was then shipped off to be a cabin boy on a merchant ship. He educated himself on the sea and became a skilled navigator. Henson met Commander Robert Peary in 1888 and joined him on an expedition to Nicaragua. Peary was impressed with Henson’s seamanship and recruited him as a colleague. For years they made many trips together, including Arctic voyages in which Henson developed trading with the Eskimos by learning their language, building sleds and training dog teams. In 1909, Peary led his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole and selected Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole. Peary became ill before reaching the summit and sent Henson ahead as a scout. Later, when measurements were taken, it was discovered that Henson, during his scouting had been the first mortal to walk on the top of the world. Although it was Peary who got most of the acclaim for the exploration, it was Henson who made the first historic steps. On November 28, 2000, the National Geographic Society recognized those steps and awarded the Hubbard Medal to Matthew A. Henson posthumously.

Cat Aboudara is the Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and works in the public programs division. The Academy is a wonderful fit for her because of her curiosity about the natural world and her experience in working with native California wildlife.

latitude: 37.769, longitude:-122.467

Famous African American Scientists 6 July,2011Cat

  • sarah

    I like your website and all, but I think you should show more people in the scientist link. I would like to see more information.

  • aaron

    this is ok, but you need more african american scientists cuz i need to do my project

  • Maya

    I think this is okay, but i need more info for my project for school.

  • Shauntrell

    I cant find any african american scientist for my science project.

  • Cat

    I have another blog about famous African American scientists, just scroll through the list of blogs

  • Jenn Brewer

    I came across this today while researching for a paper I am doing on scientists, specifically AA, as that is MY race. I wonder what makes you think you are an expert in so many fields? I, for one, do not appreciate people that have little to no experience portraying themselves as something they are not. Is diversity really a cornerstone of science? How so?
    Looking forward to your response.
    Thank you,
    Jennifer Brewer

  • Cat

    Dear Ms. Brewer

    Thank you for your inquiry, below is an answer to your questions and more detail about this blog.

    First off, I don’t consider myself an expert, nor have I ever claimed to be an expert in any scientific field. I am a writer and I have been trained in research and intermediary writing. I am also a devoted fan of science and have been all my life. This is particularly true of biological science and adaptation, something in which I have pursued, researched and been involved in for quite some time. I have the privilege to not only work with a great wealth of scientists but also the opportunity to share their research and experiences through writing for KQED. I write about experience related to me, books, scientists, and news that intrigues or inspires, hoping that it in turn will inspire others. That is why my blogs vary so much from week to week.

    I wrote this particular blog over a year ago for QUEST. I was thinking about Martin Luther King and how so many people know about his life. Yet so little is known about innovative African American scientists and innovators. So like you, I did research and wrote this blog. There was so much interest in the first blog, I was asked to write another one by my editor at QUEST. Since then, these two blogs have received the most comments, often from students like you who are doing research which I think it great.

    I also stand by my statement that diversity is the cornerstone of science. It is diversity of data, of observation, of perspectives, and species that lay the needed foundation for great discoveries. I attended a lecture on Monday of one of our curators. He stated in his talk that only 1/10 of life has been discovered on the planet. This is like a flashlight in a dark room, you don’t know what the big picture is if you can only see a portion of it. The more scientists understand about diversity of life, the better we understand our planet and how to align with it. Most of the work done at the Academy – is done by a variety of international teams out in the field. So diversity of race is quite familiar to me working here, it is unfortunate though that this is not common knowledge to the public. Please use what you like of this blog and others like it for your paper and leave what is not useful. And from my end, thank you for considering it a viable research tool!


  • katelyn

    hi . you need to find more people because. not only that we need yo do our projects, but what if some people just want to know. r u just gonna leave them hanging yo???

  • Pingback: Famous African-American Scientists & Innovators: Part III | QUEST Community Science Blog - KQED()

  • i cannot find my african american scientists and its due tomorrow!!!!uuuuugggghhhh!!!!!!



Cathleen (Cat) is the former Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and worked in the public programs division.
Before working at the Academy, Cat got her start as an intern at Lindsay Wildlife Museum for four years and worked with animals ranging from snakes and hawks to foxes and bobcats. She has a deep curiosity about the natural world and native California wildlife.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor