A Tidbit on Dorothy Vaughan

February 3, 2017

Dorothy Vaughan in her twenties.

Some of you may be aware that there is a movie out right now about three black women who had the mathematical minds and the mathematical skills to help put astronauts into space for the United States. That movie is entitled Hidden Figures. Hopefully all of you know that the US, especially the state of Ohio, lost a true hero in late 2016, with the passing of war hero, astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn. One of those three women, Dorothy Vaughan, had Ohio connections as well. Vaughan, a 1929 graduate of Wilberforce University (Wilberforce, outside of Dayton in Greene County, is a historically black college founded in 1856), helped put John Glenn into space and ultimately worked as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) manager—one of only a few African-American women to do so.

It may be hard to relate to the lack of computers in the 1960’s, but people were the ones who performed mathematical computations [a.k.a. computers] of that era, and Vaughan became a well respected NASA mathematician, one of America’s human computers. For you Chatfield math students (no matter which math class you may be taking), getting John Glenn into space and back again safely involved the calculation of proper mathematical trajectories. Vaughan served as head of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ segregated West Area Computing Unit from 1949-1958 (this organization eventually grew into NASA).  Chatfield Algebra students, you should take note of the following: Vaughan was instrumental on projects, such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. According to her NASA biography (where you can learn more about her), the predominantly male engineers often requested her for particularly challenging projects, and also requested that she personally handle the work. For you Chatfield students, here is a trivia question. Which Chatfield admissions counselor actually was a math major and has a math degree? And who says you can’t use algebra when you get out of Chatfield!?

If you are looking for something to do this weekend, go see Hidden Figures in theaters and learn more about this amazing woman, along with two other extraordinary stories.

To read more on Dorothy Vaughan, click here.

-Jim Woodford, Chatfield Instructor

Reference source: “Wilberforce grad a ‘Hidden Figure’ who helped launch Glenn by Amelia Robinson for the Dayton Daily News.

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