Dr. Mae Jemison is the textbook definition of a modern renaissance man (or in her case, woman). In her live interview at the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Jemison spoke to USD students about the profound accomplishments she’s achieved in her lifetime, from attending Stanford at the age of 16, to eventually becoming an engineer, a physician, a peace corps worker, and the first African American woman to travel to space. To say that Jemison has left her mark on the world is a monumental understatement. Just 60 years ago, being a woman in science was already seen as an anomaly. To be a Black woman in science however, was pure resistance. The foundation of modern science is a particularly twisted history, especially in regards to its relationship with the utilization of Black women. Overtime, this dynamic would change however, shifting from being one of exploitation, to African American women eventually leading the exploration of scientific knowledge, being at the forefront of many crucial scientific advancements. This Blog works to analyze this change, to map the role of Black women switching from being used at the expense of progress, to pioneering this progress themselves. Through this, we can also better understand Dr. Mae Jemison’s journey, and bring light to how she and Black scientists like her, such as Alice Ball, Dr. May Edward Chinn, and Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee fought to change this dynamic,eventually leading the forefront of crucial scientific advancements and changes in the field, such developing the first successful treatment for leprosy, revolutionizing methods of discovering cancer, changing the system to be more equitable towards POC’s , and in Dr.Jemison’s case, becoming the first Black Female to enter space.
Peeling back the curtains on the dark history between African American people and modern American science reveals horrifying truths beyond comprehension. Freedom on My Mind details how the medical field was used as a device to excuse harmful racist rhetoric and beliefs towards Black Americans. It describes how scientists like Dr. Samuel G. Morton collected human skulls and “classified them according to race” to prove racial hierarchies popularized, arguing that based on the sizes of skulls “Europeans had the most brain capacity, Africans the least.”(Pg 594). Scientific findings such as the above pushed forth a dangerous form of white supremist thinking, medically categorizing Black Americans to be Primitive in comparison to their white counterparts, and thus excusing the medley of violence and Jim Crow laws actively degrading their lives. It single handedly pushed forth inaccurate views from slavery, that “blacks were deemed fit only for field work, hard labor, and domestic services’ ‘ (594). While science was used above to demean the lives of black Americans, the medical field in particular was used to exploit them, specifically Black women. Lorded as the “Father of Modern Gynecology ” J. Marrion Sims was hailed as a hero in the scientific community, for developing pioneering tools and surgical techniques related to women’s reproductive health. However, his discoveries horrifically came at the expense of the many enslaved Black women and girls he experimented on.(National Institue of Health) His practices can be considered closer to that of torture, as he actively denied these women anethesia – or any method of pain prevention in general- while slicing them open. These women were “Unable to refuse treatment or withhold consent” as Sim’s legally needed permission only from the enslaved women’s “owners (Equal justice initiative). Sim’s advanced the reproductive knowledge of women, at the dangerous expense of black women.
The HeLa cell is one of the most important discoveries in the last century. As any upper level biology student worth their merit can recite, the first immortal human cell line has proven pivotal to key discoveries involving cancer, immunology and infectious diseases. Its most recent use was used in research for vaccines against COVID-19. However, the strand of cell’s used in science laboratories across the world, come from the body of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who never consented to their use (John Hopkins Medicine). Henrietta Lacks was a living, breathing, mother of 5, who went to one of the only hospitals offering care to black people to treat an aggressive case of cervical cancer. The doctors in charge of Lacks care, took samples of her cancerous cells, then without Lack’s knowledge or consent, sent her cells to researchers. When the cells were found to have almost immortal qualities, Henrietta Lacks was not notified. When her cells – the only living part of Lacks left in the world, made huge profits for biotech and medical companies, Lack’s family was offered no compensation. Henrietta Lacks and the women Sim’s experimented on were people, yet their race and gender exempted the medical field for treating them as such, instead using their race as reasons to exploit them.
However, as history would show, Black women- through perseverance and resistance- fought their way into making the scientific and medical field respect them. Dr. May Edward Chinn was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Bellevue Hospital Medical College, and went on to revolutionize new methods to detect cancer. She did this despite the ban of African American Physicians from New York Hospitals, instead personally meeting patients at their residences (New York University) . Despite graduating top of her class at Tufts University Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee was denied at every Massachusetts hospital due to her race and gender. Because of this, Ferebee moved to DC and worked as an obstetrician at Howard University, and she would later establish the Southeast Neighborhood House to give black communities greater access to healthcare, and in the great depression ensure equitable healthcare to all citizens by becoming the head of the Mississippi health project. (AWIS) The ball method – a chemistry based treatment for leprosy- revolutionized treatment for the disease – and vastly improved the lives of leprosy patients. Arthur L. Dean – the president of the University of Hawaii, was credited for the treatment, until it was revealed that Dean had stolen credit from Alice Ball, who had developed the treatment at the age of 24, just before her death. Even before creating the ball method, Ball was a trailblazer in her own right, becoming both the first African American to receive a masters from the University of Hawaii, and first African American to become a processor at the University as well (Scientific Women). These women are just a few in the history of Black women revolutionizing the medical and scientific field, despite facing discrimination at every single corner.
In her speech at USD, Mae C Jemison described how in her classes, she was often overlooked when she went to speak. Professors would glance over at her when she raised her hand, and her fellow peers’ conversations would get louder to overshadow her voice. However, Jemison described how this made her want to fight even more to be seen, as she detailed how she would instead sit at the front of every classroom, making sure the professor would have to acknowledge her waving hand, or speak up even louder in the face of her classmates’ ignorance. She gave the advice to students, stating how “We talk about empowerment like somebody gives us the power, but we have to take it; we have to own it.” This quote spoke to several factors in her speech, about how students should try and create their own voice and life paths, and should fight for their choices and identities that they form in life.The medical and scientific field has not been kind to African American Women. It has actively worked against them, categorizing African American people medically as less than, utilizing black women as experiments, and exploiting and profiting from their bodies. However, Jemison’s quote speaks to the power she and women like Alice Ball, Dr. Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee, and Dr. May Edward Chinn had, that they actively fought against the discrimination so at core in the field, to make their names and discoveries known, and heroically change the field and world forever.
Alexander, Kerri Lee. Mae Jemison Biography, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mae-jemison. Accessed 15 May 2023.
“Awis Advocacy: Celebrating Historical Black Women in Science.” AWIS, awis.org/historical-black-women-scientists/. Accessed 15 May 2023.
“Changing the Face of Medicine | Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, 3 June 2015, cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_109.html.
“Henrietta Lacks: Science Must Right a Historical Wrong.” Nature News, 1 Sept. 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02494-z.
“History of Scientific Women.” Alice BALL, scientificwomen.net/women/ball-alice-121. Accessed 15 May 2023.
Wall, L L. “The Medical Ethics of Dr J Marion Sims: A Fresh Look at the Historical Record.” Journal of Medical Ethics, June 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2563360/.
White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021.