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The movie “Hidden Figures” introduced the masses to Katherine Johnson, but it only scratched the surface of this fascinating and influential woman’s life. Played by Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film, Johnson broke barriers throughout her life and played a critical role in the space race of the 1960s.

Born Aug. 26, 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Johnson was fascinated by numbers from an early age and entered high school at age 10. Upon graduation, she enrolled in West Virginia State College, a historically Black university. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937—with a double major in mathematics and French—and took a job as a teacher. In 1939, the state of West Virginia decided to integrate its graduate schools, and Johnson, along with two male students, was selected to attend West Virginia University. She completed one year in the graduate math program before leaving school to start a family.

Johnson starts as a ‘computer’

Home and family were her primary focus until 1952, when she learned the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring for positions in the West Area Computing section of its Langley laboratory, led by another Black female mathematician, Dorothy Vaughn. Johnson applied to be a “computer”—the terminology used to describe the female mathematicians who completed complex notifications using pen, paper and a slide rule. The idea was that the “computers” would do the math so the male NACA staff could focus on the science.

Johnson’s ability as a “computer” famously caught the attention of astronaut John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. Before he set off on his mission in 1962, Glenn asked for the “girl”—Johnson—to double-check an actual computer’s computations. Only when the electronic figures checked out against Johnson’s would he declare the mission a go.

Johnson died on Feb. 24, 2020, at the age of 101. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Photo: Laborant / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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