Quite often people pass through our lives and go mostly unnoticed, even when they border on the verge of greatness. It isn’t until Hollywood makes a film about them, or they pass away, we finally realize how great they were, what they endured and the struggles they faced. This is the case of Katherine Johnson, who passed away last week at the age of 101.
If you are not familiar with the name Katherine Johnson, let me give you a little history about her. She was born at the end of WWI, in the small town of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her mother was a teacher and her father a lumberjack. She was one of four children and had a difficult childhood, as was the case for most African American people in those days.
As a child she showed great mathematical skills, but public education was not available to African Americans past grade eight. Her family moved to a town called Institute, which was where the campus of West Virginia State College was situated, a historically black university.
She graduated from high school when she was 14 and enrolled in WVS, taking every math course available. Her Profs were very impressed and began to mentor her, developing new programs around her skills. In 1937, at the age of 18, she graduated with degrees in mathematics and French.
She became a teacher, and after marrying her first husband, she enrolled in a graduate math program, being the first African American woman to do so. She gave birth to a daughter, and left school to focus on family life.
A few years later, she started a career as a research mathematician, an extremely difficult field, especially for black women. In 1953 she accepted a job with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics as a mathematician, and excelled at every task given to her. She was referred to as the ‘computer who wore skirts’, and using a slide rule and an adding machine, solved numerous complex puzzles.
She was a virtual computer solving gust alleviation issues for aircraft. In 1958 they disbanded the ‘coloured computing pool’. That same year Katherine started as an aerospace technologist, and shifted her career to the Spacecraft Controls Branch. When NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn's orbit around Earth, officials called on Johnson to verify the computer's numbers. Glenn had asked for her specifically, and had refused to fly unless Johnson verified the calculations.
Probably her greatest achievement was to help calculate the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. She retired in 1986, and continued to mentor young men and women in the field of math sciences. In 2010 during an interview, she remarked, "Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back."
If it was not for the film Hidden Figures, most of us would never have heard of one of the world’s smartest people.