History of Scientific Women

Main achievements: First African-American woman to supervise a NASA staff.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) was an African American mathematician and human computer who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and NASA, at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. In 1949, she became acting supervisor of the West Area Computers, the first African-American woman to supervise a staff at the center.

She later was promoted officially to this position. During her 28-year career, Vaughan prepared for the introduction of machine computers in the early 1960s by teaching herself and her staff the programming language of FORTRAN; she later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley.

Vaughan is one of the women featured in Margot Lee Shetterly's history Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016). It was adapted as a biographical film of the same name, also released in 2016.

Vaughan was born September 20, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Annie and Leonard Johnson. Her family moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where she graduated from Beechurst High School in 1925. Receiving a full-tuition scholarship, she graduated at the age of 19 with a B.A. in mathematics in 1929 from Wilberforce University, a historically black college located in Wilberforce, Ohio.

Although encouraged by professors to do graduate study at Howard University, Vaughan soon started working as a teacher. She wanted to assist her family during the Great Depression. Dorothy married Howard S. Vaughan Jr. in 1932, and the couple had six children.

In 1943, Vaughan began what developed as a 28-year-career as a mathematician and programmer at Langley Research Center. She specialized in calculations for flight paths, the Scout Project, and FORTRAN computer programming. One of her children also later worked at NASA.

After college, Vaughan worked as a mathematics teacher at R.R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. Virginia's public schools and other facilities were still racially segregated under Jim Crow laws.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to ensure the war effort drew from all of American society after the United States entered World War II in 1942. He issued Executive Order 8802, to desegregate the defense industry, and Executive Order 9346 to end racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and promotion among federal agencies and defense contractors. The US believed that the war was going to be won in the air. It had already ramped up airplane production, creating a great demand for engineers, mathematicians, craftsmen and skilled tradesmen. With many men being swept into service, federal agencies such as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) expanded their hiring and increased recruiting of women to support war production of airplanes.

In 1943 Vaughan started to work at NACA, which in 1935 had established a section of women mathematicians, who performed complex calculations. Vaughan was assigned to the West Area Computers of the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. This segregated group consisted of African-American women who made complex mathematical calculations by hand, using tools of the time.

Their work expanded in the postwar years to support research and design for the United States' space program, which was emphasized under President John F. Kennedy. Vaughan moved into the area of electronic computing in 1961, after NACA introduced the first digital (non-human) computers to the center. Vaughan became proficient in computer programming, teaching herself FORTRAN and teaching it to her coworkers to prepare them for the transition. She contributed to the space program through her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program.

In 1949, Vaughan was assigned as the acting head of the West Area Computers, taking over from a white woman who had died. She was the first Black supervisor at NACA and one of few female supervisors. She led a group composed entirely of African-American women mathematicians. She served for years in an acting role before being promoted officially to the position as supervisor. Vaughan worked for opportunities for the women in West Computing as well as women in other departments.

Seeing that machine computers were going to be the future, she taught the women programming languages and other concepts to prepare them for the transition. Mathematician Katherine Johnson was initially assigned to Vaughan's group, before being transferred to Langley's Flight Mechanics Division.

Vaughan continued after NASA, the successor agency, was established in 1958. At that time, the agency ended racial segregation at the facility. In a 1994 interview, Vaughan recalled that working at Langley during the Space Race felt like being on "the cutting edge of something very exciting." Regarding being an African-American woman during that time, she remarked, "I changed what I could, and what I couldn't, I endured." Vaughan worked in the Numerical Techniques division through the 1960s. She later became part of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD). She worked at NASA-Langley for a total of twenty-eight years.

During her career at Langley, Vaughan was also raising her six children. One of them later also worked at NASA-Langley. Vaughan lived in Newport News, Virginia and commuted to work at Hampton via public transportation.

Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971, at the age of 60. She lived until November 10, 2008, aged 98. Vaughan was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, an African-American sorority. She was also an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she participated in music and missionary activities. Vaughan is one of the women featured in Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 non-fiction book Hidden Figures, and the feature film of the same name, which recounts the stories of Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer), Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson.

Source: Wikipedia