Today, February 11th, is a special joint holiday, celebrating both National Inventors Day and International Day of Girls and Women in Science! And, since these two observances fall within Black History Month, we’re excited to highlight three Black women whose scientific inventions influenced their fields and changed lives.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan set the date for National Inventors Day on the anniversary of Thomas Edison's birthday, in honor of his contributions to the world through his many inventions. International Day of Women and Girls in Science was first recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 with the goal of promoting full and equal access in science for women and girls. Both observances highlight the importance of promoting innovation and access to science - things these three amazing inventors knew all about!
Madame CJ Walker (1867 - 1919) was born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana to her parents, who were formerly-enslaved sharecroppers. After their deaths and the death of her first husband, Walker set off to Colorado with her 2-year-old daughter and began looking for ways to financially support herself. Walker had a chronic condition that caused her to lose much of her hair, which inspired her to begin creating products specifically for Black women to ensure the health and beauty of their hair. At the time, beauty products were created and sold primarily by white inventors, so her attention to her community’s needs proved very successful. Over the years, she invented a whole system of scalp treatments, hair products and iron combs for Black hair, known as The Walker System. Before long, Walker had become the most popular Black businesswoman of her time and developed charities, social clubs and entrepreneurial programs for other young Black female professionals. By the time she died, Madame CJ Walker’s inventions earned her a lasting reputation of community care and she was recorded as the first ever self-made female millionaire in America. Her innovative hair treatments and products are still available today.
Bessie Blount Griffin (1914 - 2009) was born in rural Virginia just after the start of WWI. As an African American child, traditional education wasn’t offered to her beyond the 6th grade level, so Griffin began teaching herself and eventually earned her GED. Later she went to nursing school in New Jersey and became a physical therapist. During her career as a physical therapist, Griffin treated veterans of WWII who had mobility challenges or had lost the use of their hands. Her work inspired her to begin creating devices that would help the disabled veterans, such as a self-feeding apparatus for amputees, a neck frame for injured people and what is now called 'emesis basin' - a shallow, kidney-bean shaped dish used in medical settings for various purposes. Her devices were patented and eventually licensed for use in France and Belgium, before she began a new chapter of her career as a forensic scientist for the police department, analyzing handwriting samples. In her final years, Griffin opened a consulting business and used her forensic experience to examine documents and slave papers from the pre-Civil War era.
Valerie Thomas (1943 - ) was born in Maryland and, despite the social norms of the time that discouraged girls - especially Black girls - from STEM studies, had an early interest in science. She watched her father tinker on household appliances and, at age eight, read The Boys First Book on Electronics, which inspired her to pursue science in her studies at her all-girls school. While her early teachers did not encourage her and she did not have much support from her parents, Thomas attended Morgan State University and was one of two women majoring in physics. After graduating, she went on to work for NASA; first as a data analyst supporting satellite systems, then overseeing the creation of the longest running satellite imagery program, Landsat. Eventually, Thomas invented and patented an illusion transmitter that allows 3D images to be transmitted over long ranges using a series of mirrors and lenses. The technology is still in use by NASA today. Through her career, Thomas worked her way up to become associate chief of the Space Science Data Operations Office at NASA and participated in projects related to Halley's Comet, ozone research, satellite technology and the Voyager spacecraft. Since her retirement, she has mentored countless students through various organizations, including the Goddard Space Flight Center.