Dr. George Carruthers – Astronomical Engineer

Dr. George Carruthers

“I had no role models because nobody ever publicised them, not that they didn’t exist. George Washington Carver and Percy [Lavon] Julian and others had preceded me in science, but nobody ever publicised their accomplishments, and, therefore, many of the minority students didn’t know that they had a future in science because they figured it was something that was not for them.” – Dr. Carruthers on the lack of publicity POC scientists get for their achievements.


George Carruthers
Dr. Carruthers. Source: https://goo.gl/yyLQhC

Name: George Robert Carruthers

Life: 1/10/39 – Present 


B.Sc: Aeronautical Engineering, University of Illinois

M.Sc: Nuclear Engineering, University of Illinois

Ph.D: Aeronautical and astronomical engineering, University of Illinois

Occupation:  Inventor, Physicist and Space Scientist


Who is Dr.George Carruthers?

Carruthers was born on the 1st of October 1939 to George and Sophia Carruthers. George Carruthers Sr. was a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps and encouraged his son’s interests in physics, science and astronomy. Even at the extremely young age of 10 years old, Carruther’s love of astronomy was readily apparent; he had built his first telescope out of cardboard tubes and mail order lenses with the money he was earning as a delivery boy. [1][2]

In an interview with NASA Carruthers states that his “interest in space science and astronomy came about by reading science fiction comic books when I was about nine years old, and then after that I became interested in astronomy because I came across some books on the subject. Of course, that was long before there was a space program, so people weren’t really overly enthusiastic, including my relatives, about my interest in astronomy. They thought I should pursue something more practical, such as engineering, because my father was an engineer, but he also gave me an interest in technology as well.” and that his father “instilled in me the importance of learning about math and science in general.”[1][2][3]

Tragically, Carruther’s father passed away when he was just 12, and the family then decided to move to Chicago. The extreme emotional anguish bought about from losing his father did not stop him in his relentless pursuit of achieving in the field of science; he entered high school science fairs in Chicago as one of a very few number of African-American students, and he ended up winning three awards, including coming first in one competition for a telescope that he designed and built himself.[1][2]

At the age of 18, he started studying a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Illinois, and alongside the usual engineering modules, he also took up studying astronomy. After graduating with his B.Sc in 1961, he stayed on at the same institution earning his M.Sc in Nuclear Engineering, and then a Ph.D. in Aeronautical and Astronomical Engineering in 1964. Alongside his studies for his Ph.D., Carruthers researched plasma and gases, and also worked as teaching assistant.[1]


After completing his Ph.D., Carruthers went to Washington D.C. to work for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Science Foundation, a United States government agency that supports research and education in the non-medical fields of science and engineering, something which he remembers being vividly excited about because “it was [his] first real chance to have hands-on participation in space science, because NRL was one of the few organisations that was directly involved in the space program.”[1][2][8]

One of the projects he took on during his postdoctoral appointment at NRL was to look for molecular hydrogen in interstellar space, which could be detected only by the use of ultraviolet spectroscopy. Carruthers is considered the inventor of the ultraviolet camera/spectrograph, and his work with this invention demonstrated incontrovertible proof that molecular hydrogen exists in the interstellar medium. In 1966, he became a full-time research physicist at the NRL’s E. O. Hulbert Center for Space Research, and on the 11th of November, 1969, he received an official patent for his “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially in Short Wave Lengths.” Not only was Carruthers responsible for this invention, he was also “in charge of the further development of the observing program and the data analysis.” The use of UV light was ingenious and important because it allows us to take readings of and therefore understand objects that are unable to be detected via visible light or the human eye, and it was during a spaceflight in 1970 that Carruther’s UV telescope was used to do just this: it provided proof of hydrogen existing in interstellar space. The UV spectrograph was also used on April 21, 1972, during the Apollo 16 mission. In 1986, UV spectroscopy was used to capture an image of Halley’s Comet, and in 1991, he invented a camera that was used in the Space Shuttle Mission. [1][5][6][8]

Carruthers’ views on how race is involved in science education and in academia

In the previously mentioned interview with NASA, Carruther’s states that he himself never was a victim of direct racism in his academic circles, however he mentions how few African-Americans were present in his engineering course: “I don’t think that I really had any overt obstacles in my college education. Of course, African Americans were like 1 percent of the engineering students there, so we were relatively rare, but I never saw any instances of discrimination that prevented me from doing whatever I wanted to do there, on the part of either professors or other students.” [3] 

However, in a separate interview at the NRL with Dr David DeVorkin (senior curator of history of astronomy and the space sciences at the National Air and Space Museum), he spoke about how sociological and economic factors resulted in systematic racism, which had an impact on the number of African-American students that would enter science programs:


At this point, what do you feel it takes to get students interested? And does it take anything different to get an African American student interested as opposed to a white child?


To answer the latter question first, I don’t think there is anything different in nature. There may be some difference in the degree because of environment and background. Certainly I don’t think there is anything inherent to race that’s involved. It’s just that most of the African American students come from less well-to-do backgrounds, inner city backgrounds, and aren’t exposed to science and technology to the degree that some of the other students are.”[4]

In this interview, Carruthers also speaks about the importance of having good black academic role models available to inspire black students into scientific fields of study:


What is the value that you’ve found so far, of role models?


It’s hard for me to say, because I don’t get very much feedback, especially from the younger students, but some of the older students that I’ve been in contact with, especially at the college level, have been enthusiastic. In fact, some of them have written me letters expressing gratitude to me for giving them information on various science and technology subjects. I should also add that one way in which I interact with students, aside from Project SMART, is through the National Technical Association, because I’m the editor of their journal which comes out four times a year. We use that journal to get to students not only scientific and technical information, but career profiles and biographical sketches of prominent African American scientists and engineers. We distribute that to senior high schools and to colleges.[4]

Science outreach and other science organisation positions Dr. Carruthers has held

In addition to Project SMART, during the 1980s Carruthers created a program called the “Science & Engineers Apprentice program, a program which allows students in high school to spend a summer doing research at the NRL alongside the scientists working there, and Carruthers currently works with the NRL’s community outreach organisation to support and promote several education activities in the sciences in the Washington D.C area. [1][2][5]

He has been Chairman of the Editing and Review Committee and Editor of the previously mentioned Journal of the National Technical Association since 1983, and continuing his commitment to helping students in their science education, he taught a course in Earth and Space Science for D.C. Public Schools Science teachers. He also helped develop a series of videotapes on Earth and Space science for high-school students during 1996 and 1997.

In addition to this, since 2002 he has been teaching a two-semester course in Earth and Space Science at Howard University sponsored by a NASA Aerospace Workforce Development Grant. [1][8]

A list of honours bestowed upon Dr. George Carruthers can be found below:

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References are categorised by the following types:

🗒️ = Written 

🎧 = Audio

💻 = Video

[1]🗒️- Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Robert_Carruthers

[2]🗒️- Biography.com article: https://www.biography.com/people/george-carruthers-538794

[3]🗒️- Transcript of interview with Glen Swanson at the NASA Johnson Space Centre, 25th March 1999: https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/CarruthersGR/CarruthersGR_3-25-99.htm

[4]🗒️ – Transcript of interview with David DeVorkin at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), 18th August 1992: https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/32485

[5]🗒️ – BlackInventor.com article: http://blackinventor.com/george-carruthers/

[6]🗒️ – Encylopedia.com article: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/carruthers-george-r-1939

[7]🗒️ – Naval Research Laboratory news release: https://www.nrl.navy.mil/news/releases/nrls-dr-george-carruthers-honored-national-medal-technology-and-innovation

[8]🗒️ – Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences article: http://www.cpnas.org/aahp/biographies/george-carruthers.html

Authors Note: Dr. George Carruthers is a remarkable man, someone who has not only excelled in the fields of space science and engineering, and produced inventions which are fundamental to research in the field of astronomy, he also has the incredibly rare and extremely admirable quality of being a professional scientist who understands the importance of reaching out to the public education system and helping students succeed.

His insight into the importance of outreach with Project SMART and the National Technical Association shows that he understands that Black students interested in science need Black scientists and engineers as role models to inspire them; and that success (or lack of) in these fields is nothing at all to do with inherent qualities of race, but rather the environmental, sociological and economic factors driven by systematic racism which affect these students.

Dr. George Carruthers knows of the significance of outreach, inclusion and visibility of minorities especially in science academia, and it is a leaf that every scientist can (and should) take out of his book!

For more information on POC scientists please visit our resources page or read through the rest of our blog. We are constantly updating both.

Written by Pruthvi Mehta. For more information see the about page or follow her on Twitter @q_the_ordinary.




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