As we’re celebrating International Day of the Girl and Black History Month, this post is dedicated to women inventors of colour.
Did you know that only 13 per cent of science, tech, engineering and maths workers are women?
At the end of the 20th century, only 10 per cent of all patents were awarded to female inventors. For most of history, if you were a woman — especially a woman of colour — chances of conceiving an invention and seeing it produced were slim to none.
First American Woman Inventor
It’s not that women lack ingenuity or a creative spirit, though; it’s just that women have faced many hurdles in receiving credit for their ideas. Take the case of Sybilla Masters, a woman who lived in the American colonies. After observing Native American women working way too hard to grind maise into cornmeal, she came up with a new way to do the job.
She came to England to obtain a patent for her work. Still, laws at the time stipulated that women couldn’t own property, which included intellectual property like a patent. Such property was considered to be owned by the woman’s father or husband. In 1715, a patent for Sybilla Masters’ product was issued, but the name on the document is that of her husband, Thomas.
It wasn’t until pioneers like Madame C J Walker (who invented a range of hair care products and became a millionaire) made their mark that women of colour gained traction in the invention industry. Even today, the word “inventor” conjures images of Nikola Tesla or Alexander Graham Bell.
In this article, we look at the work of six female inventors of colour whose innovations have significantly impacted science and health.
While some of these inventions are just getting off the ground, others have already significantly contributed to society. But one thing is certain: these eight women are badass.
Patricia Bath’s Laserphaco Probe
Dr Bath was the first African American woman in history to receive a patent for a medical invention in 1988. Ophthalmologist Bath specialises in cataract treatment, and her Laserphaco Probe was a revolutionary way to treat those who have cataracts using lasers. The invention made eye surgeries more accurate, and it saved the sight of a great many people.
Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad’s Plastic-To-Biofuel Transformation
Prepare to feel inadequate: At 16, Egyptian-born Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad came up with her life-changing invention. Faiad developed a method for converting plastic waste into biofuel, which can be used in countries with large amounts of plastic waste. Her invention is low-cost and eco-friendly, but it might take a while to make its way onto the market — but it’s not like she doesn’t have time.
Flossie Wong-Staal’s HIV Test and Molecular Knife
The list of patents held by Dr Flossie Wong-Staal goes on for three pages. And they highlight something you may not know about inventions: they’re not all about moving parts or mass production. Inventions can be tiny — in Wong-Staal’s case, molecular. She’s a specialist in virology, particularly HIV/AIDS (she and her colleagues discovered it in 1983). She has invented many protocols and tests surrounding the virus, including an invention that led to the world’s first HIV test. She also developed an enzyme-based “molecular knife” to cut up genetic information in AIDS patients.
Angela Zhang’s Cancer Treatment
In 2012, Angela Zhang — then 17 and at high school in Cupertino, California — won the Siemens science contest (and $100,000) with her invention, which is nothing less than world-changing for people with cancer. By embedding cancer medication in a polymer that would “stick” to cancer cells, allowing them to be tracked by infrared light, she’s found a way of monitoring how the medication works in a cancer patient’s body — and how to time when it’s released. The polymer can be “dissolved” to let the medicine enter the cell, so doctors can see exactly how and where cancer’s being tackled. Genius.
Shirley Jackson’s Fibre Optic Cables
Dr Shirley Jackson’s inventions are behind quite a lot of modern technology. The first African American woman to graduate with a doctorate in particle physics, she went on to work for Bell Telephones. She helped invent a host of developments that revolutionised how we communicate.
Jackson started to conduct successful experiments in theoretical physics and then started to use her physics knowledge to begin making telecommunications advances while working at Bell Laboratories. These inventions include developments in the portable fax, the touch-tone telephone, solar cell, and the fibre optic cables used to provide clarity in overseas telephone calls. She has also helped make possible Caller ID and Call Waiting.
Deepika Kurup’s Water Purification Patent
Deepika Kurup was part of Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30 energy influencers, but she’s already been working on her invention for a few years: it won her a major award in 2012. It’s a solar-powered water purification system that uses photocatalytic composites to provide clean, fresh water worldwide, particularly in underprivileged areas. Water purity is a massive factor in stopping the spread of disease, so Kurup is saving the world before she’s old enough to drink.