Katherine Johnson ( aka. The Human Computer)
“I counted everything: The steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky.”
Born in West Virginia, the daughter of a school teacher and a farmer, Johnson was always gifted. She graduated high school at the age of 14 and moved on to study and devote her life to advanced mathematics. After graduating she went to work in the computing lab at NASA during the prime days of the space race. In this early point in computer history, mathematical computation was done primarily by women, by hand, and was considered to be lesser work to engineering. Despite this perception, the work that Johnson and other women like her did was the base upon which the United States launched into the cosmos. John Glenn requested personally to have Johnson check and confirm the math on all the computations that would be used to launch him into space for his historic orbit around the earth. Katherine Johnson spent 33 years working for NASA and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 by President Barack Obama for her contributions to the nation.
Ada Lovelace: First Programmer
"If you can't give me poetry, can't you give me poetical science?
The daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, whom she never met, Augusta Ada Byron Countess of Lovelace was expected to do great things, but her mother worried that she would suffer from the same erratic and unpredictable behavior as her father. To curb this, Ada’s mother insisted the she be schooled rigorously in mathematics and the sciences. While this was not common for women of her time, Ada took well to these studies, and once she joined forces with her mentor Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine she made her way into history. Creating a set of equations, Ada intuited the possibility of programming computational functions into the Analytical Engine. These were the very first whispers of what would eventually develop into the computers and coding we now use all the time. Her visionary way of thinking has cemented her in history as the very first programmer.
Rigoberta Menchu Tum : Indigenous Activist
“I am like a drop of water on a rock. After drip, drip, dripping in the same place, I begin to leave a mark, and I leave my mark in many people's hearts.”
Rigoberta Menchú was born to a poor indigenous family of K'iche' descent near Laj Chimel, a small town in the north-central Guatemala. She came to social activism through her initial involvement with the Catholic Church and it's charity work. Menchú has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of Guatemala's indigenous people both during and after the Guatemalan Civil War. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her activism, and the Prince of Asturias Award in 1998. She continues her activism for indigenous women's rights to this day even to the point of running for president of Guatemala.
Fannie Lou Hamer: Civil Rights Activist
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free”
Fannie Lou Hamer was a strong voting and civil rights activist during the time that black Americans suffered under the blatant oppression of the Jim Crow south. The daughter of sharecroppers, Hamer worked in the fields starting at the age of 6. She spent her life working as a sharecropper until she was driven from her plantation for her civil rights activism. Hamer was so compelling in her public speaking that the U.S. Government and the President personally tried to get coverage of her speaking dropped by the national networks. L.B.J called an impromptu and inconsequential press conference to pull coverage away from Hamer’s now well known speech. The tactic didn’t end up working as several networks aired unedited and unbroken tape of her speech later that evening. Her speech and emphatic delivery brought a great deal of awareness to the struggle for civil rights. Her tombstone is etched with her famous words "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Rosalind Franklin: Chemist
“You look at science (or at least talk of it) as some sort of demoralising invention of man, something apart from real life, and which must be cautiously guarded and kept separate from everyday existence. But science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.”
While the discovery of DNA is primarily associated with Watson and Crick their work would not have been possible without the contributions of Rosalind Franklin. Pioneering the technique of X-Ray diffraction to visualize and photograph molecular structures, Franklin’s photographs provided Watson and Crick the information they needed to develop their Nobel Prize winning model of DNA. Franklin died at the young age of 38 from cancer that may have been caused by her consistent exposure to x-rays in her work, but her contributions to the unraveling of human genetics made our modern understanding of human genetics possible.
Nellie Bly: Pioneering Investigative Journalist
“It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness are there in the world."
Born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864, in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania, She began her writing career at The Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885. It was at the dispatch that she acquired her nomme de plume Nellie Bly. Two years later, Bly moved to New York City and began working for the New York World. In one of her first assignments for The World Bly bravely pioneered the field of undercover journalism intentionally getting herself committed to a Mental Institution to expose the treatment of patients in the facility. She had a disturbingly easy time getting herself committed and wrote a harrowing expose of the treatment of patients at Blackwell's Island. She was perhaps a little too successful convincing her doctors however and was only only able to secure release at the request of The World. Her story led to a number of reforms around the treatment of patients at mental health facilities. In 1889, the paper sent the intrepid reporter on a trip around the world in to test if Jules Verne's fantastical Around the World in 80 Days was actually possible. True to form she not only completed the trip but did so in a record breaking fashion making her way around the globe in 72 days.
Marsha P Johnson: Trans Activist
“Pay it no mind”
A well known drag queen, and transgender woman in NYC, Johnson was identified as one of the first to fight back in the clashes with police during the now historic riot at the Stonewall Inn. In the early 1970s, Johnson and close friend Sylvia Rivera co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries; together they were a very visible presence in the early gay rights movement and other radical political actions of the time. As a street queen Johnson often herself was homeless and acted with Silvia Rivera as a house mother to S.T.A.R House getting together food and clothing to help support the young drag queens, trans women and other street kids living on the Christopher Street docks, or in their house on the Lower East Side of New York. She was active in social justice movements for LGBT rights until the time of her death under suspicious circumstances in 1992.
Grace Hopper: Navy Rear Admiral/Pioneering Programmer
"A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for"
Before beginning her career with the Navy Grace Hopper had already graduated with a PhD. in advanced mathematics from Yale. she was initially turned away when she attempted to enlist in the early days of WWII but due to her valuable training in Mathematics she was granted a waiver and sworn into the Navy Reserve in 1943. She then spent the remainder of her life in national service working on programming the Mark 1 and Mark 2 computers which were some of the earliest computers in the United States. One of her most notable and long lasting contributions to computer science was the creation of the first source code compiler which is a tool programmers use to translate between different computer languages, and makes the system integrations we now enjoy possible. Hopper sometimes called “Amazing Grace” finally retired for the Navy Reserve in 1986. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of freedom by President Barack Obama.
Malala Yousafzai: Women’s Education Activist/ Nobel Laureate
“When the whole world is silent even one voice is powerful.”
Born in the embattled Swat District of Pakistan, Malala began at the age of 11 to blog for the BBC about the Taliban restrictions on girls education. Published under the pseudonym Gul Makai her blog describes the changes taking place in her home as the Taliban moves in and begins eliminating education for girls. Both Malala and her father engaged in fierce activism publicly speaking out against the actions of the Taliban to quash education in the region. Malala and her father persistent in their activism under constant threat of death, and eventually these threats manifest into actions. On the way to her school Malala's bus was stopped and she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman leaving her in a coma. Through both Pakistani and international support Malala was offered treatment at a number of world class hospitals and did in fact survive the shooting. She continues her activism in exile and now attends school in Birmingham. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2014 for her work and is the youngest ever recipient of the prestigious award.
Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Woman
Not everyone contributes to the world through their own direct actions, sometimes they get a place in history by accident. Henrietta Lacks lived a normal and unfortunately all too short life dying at age 31 from cancer diagnosed too late. Her cancerous cells however lived on to become one of the foundations of modern biomedical research. Cells extracted from Henrietta during her diagnosis were observed to replicate at an accelerated speed and also survived longer than other cells they used in lab testing allowing for much more in depth bio medical research. These cells became known as HeLa cells which is an abbreviation of Henrietta Lacks and have been mass produced for medical research ever since. Hela cells have been involved in a number of important leaps in science from development of the polio vaccine to being sent to space to test exposure to nuclear radiation and toxins. These cells have helped us understand some of the greatest biomedical challenges of our time including HIV/AIDS and Cancer.