Dorothy Vaughan, 1910-2008

  • Dorothy-Vaughan-WWP

Woman Category: Science & TechnologyWoman Tags: African-American Women, Mathematician, and Scientist

  • HerStory

    A mathematician and ‘human computer’, among the first African-Americans who worked and progressed at NASA, and the first African-American woman to supervise a group of staff at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

    Born as Dorothy Johnson in Kansas City, Missouri. At 19, she earned a B.A. in mathematics from Wilberforce University, a black college in Ohio. Deciding to support her family during the Great Depression years, she did not proceed to higher studies in the university and worked as a math teacher. At the age of 22, she married Howard Vaughan.
    When she was 33 years old, Vaughan started working as a mathematician and programmer at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)’s West Area Computing Unit – a group of African-American female mathematicians that performed manually complex computations and analyzing data for aerospace engineers. The unit’s work was essential to the success of the early US Space Program. At that time, NACA was segregated, and Vaughan and her colleagues (among them were Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson) had to use separate bathrooms and dining facilities.
    At the age of 39, she got promoted to be the acting manager of the West Area Computers, and by that, became the first African-American supervisor at NACA. It took several more years until she was promoted to be the official manager. Seeing the future in computer machine, she became an expert in computer programming, teaching herself and her coworkers to program in Fortran to be prepared for the future use of computer machines. This was one of many actions to promote women in the organization.
    After NACA was incorporated into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the segregation abolished, and Vaughan joined the new Analysis and Computation Division. She retired in 1971 after 28 years in NACA\NASA, well appreciated for her scientific contribution as well as for paving the way for African-Americans in the organization.

    “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured”

    “I changed what I could, and what I couldn’t, I endured”

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • In addition to her career, Vaughan raised her six children and was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she participated in missionary activities.
    • She is one of the main characters in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book that inspired the 2014 movie ‘Hidden Figures’, which follows the African-American females’ story and contribution while working in segregation, in the ‘human computers department’ at NASA. Octavia Spencer played Vaughan’s character in the movie.


  • More About Her Legacy
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  • The African-American women behind NASA's rocket launches

    A group of women at NASA called "human computers," many of them black, helped put a man on the moon. Their intellect was an essential part of America's ability to launch rockets into space. Jan Crawford shows us how they were relegated to a footnote in history -- until now.

  • Her portrait as presented in her official biography on NASA's website. Photo credit - NASA.

  • Citations and Additional References:
    NASA website. website.
    Wikipedia page.