Black History Month is a time to celebrate and recognise the achievements and contributions of Black individuals throughout history. In the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), Black women have made groundbreaking discoveries and advancements, often facing significant barriers and discrimination along the way.
Following the Black History Month UK theme “Saluting our Sisters,” we highlight eight remarkable Black women who have left an indelible mark in the world of science and medicine.
Marie Maynard Daly: Pioneering biochemist
Marie Maynard Daly was a trailblazing biochemist and the first Black woman to earn a PhD in Chemistry in the United States. Born in 1921, Daly completed her undergraduate degree at Queens College, her master’s at New York University, and her PhD at Columbia University. She conducted groundbreaking research on arterial metabolism, exploring the links between high cholesterol, clogged arteries, and increased risk of heart attacks. Daly also made significant contributions to the study of protein synthesis and the chemistry of histones.
Wangari Maathai: Environmental activist and biologist
Wangari Maathai was a biologist, environmental activist, and the first woman in Africa to earn a PhD. Born in 1940 in Kenya, Maathai received a scholarship to study Biology in the United States. In 1969, she returned to Kenya to pursue her PhD in Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which focused on tree planting, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. She became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her environmental activism.
Elizabeth Anionwu: Pioneer in nursing and healthcare
Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu is a British nurse and professor known for her contributions to nursing and healthcare. Born in Birmingham in 1947, Anionwu overcame a turbulent childhood after spending years in care. She set up the first UK sickle cell centre and advocated for minority communities affected by genetic disorders. Anionwu also campaigned for the recognition of the work of 19th-century nurse Mary Seacole.
Alexa Canady: First Black female neurosurgeon in the US
Alexa Canady made history as the first Black female neurosurgeon in the United States. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Zoology at the University of Michigan and went on to study Medicine. Canady specialised in pediatric neurosurgery and researched treating children with traumatic brain injuries and prenatal brain conditions. Her work has saved and improved the lives of countless young people.
Francisca Okeke: Nigerian physicist and researcher
Francisca Okeke is a Nigerian physicist known for her groundbreaking work on the equatorial electrojet phenomenon. Okeke studied Physics at the University of Nigeria and completed her PhD in Ionospheric Geophysics. She has made significant contributions to our understanding of the narrow ion current in the ionosphere above the equator. In 2013, Okeke received a L’Oreal-UNESCO award for her research, highlighting its potential to further our understanding of climate change.
Mae Carol Jemison: Astronaut and advocate
Mae Carol Jemison is an American engineer, physician, and astronaut, best known as the first Black woman to travel to space. Born in 1956, Jemison graduated from Stanford with a degree in Chemical Engineering before studying Medicine at Cornell University. In 1992, she made history by becoming a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Jemison has been a strong advocate for diversity in STEM fields and continues to inspire future generations.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock: Space scientist and science communicator
Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a British space scientist and science communicator. Born in London, Aderin-Pocock developed a passion for space from a young age, inspired by programs like Star Trek. She completed her PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London and has since become a leading figure in space science and astronomy. Aderin-Pocock has made numerous television appearances, sharing her knowledge and inspiring others to pursue careers in STEM.
Funmi Olopade: Cancer geneticist and global health advocate
Funmi Olopade is a Nigerian-born cancer geneticist and global health advocate. She received her medical degree from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria before pursuing further studies in the United States. Olopade has conducted extensive research on the genetics of breast cancer, particularly in African and African-American populations. Her work has significantly contributed to our understanding of the disease and has helped improve cancer prevention and treatment strategies.
These eight Black women have made groundbreaking contributions to STEM fields, overcoming significant obstacles and paving the way for future generations. From biochemistry to space science, their achievements have left an indelible mark on the scientific community. As we celebrate Black History Month, it is essential to recognise and honour the remarkable accomplishments of these inspiring women.