Dorothy Vaughan was an African-American mathematician and computer programmer who made significant contributions to the field of space exploration. She was born on September 20, 1910, in Kansas City, Missouri, and passed away on November 10, 2008, in Hampton, Virginia.
Dorothy Vaughan’s early aptitude for mathematics became evident during her schooling years. She excelled in the subject and went on to graduate from Wilberforce University in Ohio with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics in 1929. After completing her education, she began her teaching career at a segregated school in Farmville, Virginia.
In 1943, Dorothy Vaughan was recruited by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, to work as a mathematician at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. She was one of the few African-American women employed by NACA at the time.
At Langley, Vaughan joined the West Area Computing unit, a group of African-American female mathematicians known as “computers.” These women performed complex calculations manually, serving as human computers. Their work was integral to the success of various projects at NACA, including aeronautical research and space exploration.
Dorothy Vaughan’s skills and leadership abilities quickly became apparent, and she was promoted to become the first African-American supervisor at NACA in 1949. In her supervisory role, she was responsible for managing the West Area Computing unit, which involved overseeing the work of other female mathematicians, including Katherine Johnson.
Vaughan’s leadership was particularly instrumental during the transition from human computers to electronic computers. Recognizing the importance of computer programming skills, she taught herself and her team the programming language FORTRAN. This allowed them to adapt to the changing technological landscape and secure their positions within the organization.
Dorothy Vaughan became an expert in programming the newly acquired IBM computers, which were used for complex calculations and data analysis. Her expertise and determination ensured that the West Area Computing unit remained relevant and valuable during the shift toward electronic computing.
Vaughan’s contributions were not only significant in terms of her technical expertise but also in breaking down racial barriers. She fought for the recognition and promotion of her African-American colleagues, ensuring that they received the opportunities and acknowledgment they deserved.
In 1971, Dorothy Vaughan retired from NASA after a distinguished career that spanned nearly three decades. Her contributions to the space program and her pioneering role as an African-American woman in the field of computer programming laid the foundation for future generations of women and minorities in STEM fields.
While Dorothy Vaughan’s work and legacy remained relatively unknown to the general public for many years, the 2016 film “Hidden Figures” brought her story and the contributions of other African-American female mathematicians, including Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson at NASA to light. The film showcased her remarkable achievements and highlighted the challenges she faced due to racial and gender discrimination.
Dorothy Vaughan’s determination, technical expertise, and leadership have left an indelible mark on the history of mathematics, computer programming, and space exploration. Her legacy serves as a reminder of the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunities in scientific and technological fields.