At the 2017 Oscars, 98-year-old Katherine Johnson took the stage. It is not customary for a mathematician to be honored at this awards show; however, with the release of Hidden Figures, Johnson’s life story—in all of its success and difficulty—quickly became a national conversation. As depicted in the film, Johnson pushed through the struggles of being an African-American woman in a white-male dominated field and accomplished amazing things.
Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. With an innate gift for numbers, she finished the eighth grade by age 10. Since her town didn’t offer high school classes for African-Americans, Johnson’s family moved 120 miles in order to make sure she earned a higher education.
After completing high school and enrolling at Virginia State College, one of Johnson’s professors, Dr. William W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, was intent on preparing Johnson to become a research mathematician. At age 18, Johnson graduated with degrees in Mathematics and French. The next year, she became one of three students to desegregate West Virginia University’s graduate school in Morgantown. Because of the hostile environment here, Johnson never finished her program. Instead, she taught math and French elsewhere for some time.
In 1939, Johnson married James Francis Goble. They had three daughters together named Joylette, Katherine, and Constance. In 1952, after some time spent focused on family life, Johnson heard that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African-American women to work as “computers”—the nickname given to people who checked calculations for technological developments. She applied to this program and was accepted the following year.
Johnson’s curiosity and assertiveness made her stand out among her NACA cohort. After only two weeks she was transferred to Langley's flight research division, in which she talked her way into meetings and earned other responsibilities.
In 1956, Johnson’s husband tragically died of a brain tumor. She was remarried in 1959 to decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson.
NACA was rebranded the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration” (NASA) in 1958. Johnson achieved many feats as she continued to work there. For example, Johnson and NASA laid the groundwork for Alan Shepard’s 1962 space launch. NASA’s next challenge was to send a man in orbit around Earth. In hopes of accomplishing this goal, space scientists started using electronic computers to figure out complicated calculations. Ultimately, astronaut John Glenn was not launched into space until Johnson had checked the calculations and work of the machines.
Throughout the years, Johnson remained valuable for her incredible accuracy and work ethic. Before retiring in 1986, she helped develop both the Space Shuttle program and the Earth Resources Satellite for NASA.
For her innovative work, Johnson has been honored with many awards including the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award and the 1997 National Technical Association Mathematician of the Year. She has also earned degrees from four different colleges. And in 2015, Johnson was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Former President Barack Obama. In 2016, the story of Johnson and her peers was portrayed in the now-acclaimed film Hidden Figures.
Johnson continues to be a great inspiration and role model for women, African-Americans, and anyone else who also believes that “everything is physics and math”—a tenet she herself voiced and lived by.