Mary Jackson – Mathematician and Aerospace Engineer

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Rafaella Antoniou! Rafaella is a PhD student and Research Assistant in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath, UK. You can read more of her work on Medium, and get in touch with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Mary Jackson at NASA [1]

Basic information[1]

Name: Mary Jackson (née Winston)

Life: April 9, 1921 – February 11, 2005

Born: Hampton, Virginia, USA.

Education: BSc in Mathematics and Physical Science, Hampton University, 1942

Primary occupation: Mathematician and Aerospace Engineer

Who is Mary Jackson?

It is hard to summarise the life and legacy of Mary Jackson in a few words. A quote by her daughter, Carolyn Lewis, gives us a good start:

“she was a scientist, humanitarian, wife, mother and trailblazer who paved the way for thousands of others to succeed not only at NASA, but throughout the [USA]” [2].

Committed to science but also serving others, she is often fittingly referred to as a trailblazer for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), birthing possibilities for others by leading by example.

Ms Jackson is best known for the fact that she was the first black woman engineer at NASA during segregation in the USA. Later in her career, she also worked there as a Federal Women’s Program Manager, helping women launch and progress their careers in STEM [1].

Ms Jackson started her career in an era when women of all backgrounds were a rarity in engineering. She not only faced adversity and overcame the hurdle of race in a time of segregation, she also overcame gender bias in a male-dominated field. 

Personal life

Mary Eliza Winston was born in 1921 in Hampton, Virginia, USA. She married Levi Jackson in 1944 [3] and had two children [4]. She was a Girl Scout leader for over 30 years [1], and formed a science club for young Black people at a neighbourhood community centre, where she notably helped them construct a model of a wind tunnel, to spark an interest in them towards science and mathematics outside of the classroom [4].

Career before NASA

An excellent student, Ms Jackson graduated with the highest honours in her high school [1] and proceeded to earn BSc degrees in Mathematics and Physical Science at Hampton University [5]. Post-graduation, she explored a variety of different jobs before landing that first job at NACA (NASA’s predecessor), which would end up creating the career of a lifetime for her. After getting her degrees, Ms Jackson:

  • Briefly taught mathematics for a year at a Black school in Calvert County, Maryland
  • Worked as a receptionist at the King Street United Service Organisation Club in Hampton
  • Took up a post as a bookkeeper in Hampton Institute’s Health department
  • Was briefly a stay-at-home mother
  • Got a job as an Army secretary

Career at NASA

In 1951, after working a variety of different jobs, Ms Jackson got a job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory (now called Langley Research Centre), as a computer in the then-segregated West Area Computing section [1]. At that time, electronic computers were not commercially available, so the word computer was used to mean ‘a person who computes’ mathematical calculations.

Even though she worked in a segregated area of the company, her intellect and achievements were not missed by someone who thought she had the potential to be more than a human computer: she could be an engineer [6]. After two years of work as a computer, she accepted an offer by polish engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, who would soon also become her mentor [6], to work in conducting experiments using the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a wind tunnel capable of reaching wind speeds close to twice the speed of sound [1]. 

Convinced of her capabilities, Czarnecki suggested that she should enter a training programme which would enable her to get promoted to engineer. This, however, involved taking additional post-graduate level courses. The classes were held at the then-segregated Hampton High School. She overcame adversity yet again by encouraging her white peers to accept her in the classroom and obtaining special permission from the City of Hampton to attend the all-white school [1,6].

It is safe to say that Ms Jackson was not afraid of a challenge. Within a few years, she completed the courses, got the promotion, and in 1958 she became NASA’s first Black woman engineer [1]. In the very same year, she co-authored her first of many scientific reports. She went on to author numerous reports and had a prolific 20-year career in engineering.

The barriers Ms Jackson had to overcome in her life and career were many. After working as an engineer for over two decades, she encountered yet another when realised that she could not break through the glass ceiling, which prevented NASA’s women employees to being promoted into management-level grades at the time [1]. Wanting to make a change for the better and help the next generation of women in STEM, in 1979 in a dramatic move she decided to leave engineering and take a lower-level position as Langley’s Federal Women’s Programme Manager, where she spent the last 6 years of her career.

Legacy

Ms Jackson passed away at the age of 83 in 2005 [5]. She received countless honours and awards during her lifetime and after her death, including the Apollo Group Achievement Award [1]. She came into the public spotlight posthumously, through the 2016 book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly [7] and the film adaptation with the same name released in the same year.

In 2019 she received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal [8] and in July 2020 NASA named its headquarters in Washington D.C. after her [2].

Author’s note

As a woman in engineering and an immigrant, I’ve always felt different. Saying that I am inspired by the achievements of Ms Jackson, against all the odds of not just segregation, but also the male-dominated nature of the engineering field she was in, would be an understatement. Diving deep into her biography and career for writing this article, I learnt many invaluable lessons. I would love to share some of those with you, and I encourage you to leave a reply below with the takeaways that you’ve gained from reading about her life. Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Don’t let the status quo get in the way of your success
  2. Lead by example
  3. Serve others and teach them what you have learnt
  4. You will probably not find the career of your dreams from your first try
  5. When you go up, bring others with you

References

[1] 💻 Shetterly, M.L. n.d. Mary W. Jackson Biography [Online]. NASA.

[2] 💻 Waller, A., 2020. “NASA Names Headquarters After Its First Black Female Engineer, Mary Jackson” [Online]. The New York Times.

[3] 💻 Mary Eliza Winston – Levi Jackson Certificate of Marriage.

[4] 💻 Lewis, Shawn D., 1977.“The Professional Woman: Her Fields Have Widened”. Ebony. Johnson Publishing Company. ISSN 0012-9011.

[5] 💻 Mary Winston Jackson Obituary.

[6] 📹 NASA. Hidden No More |The Legacy of Mary W. Jackson [Video]. Youtube.

[7] 💻 Shetterly, M.L., 2016. “Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.” USA: William Morrow and Company. ISBN: 978-0-06-236360-2

[8] 💻 “H.R.1396 – Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act”. Congress.gov.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: