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3 African American Inventors and How Their Inventions Changed the World (Part 1)

Jan 12, 2018 12:00 AM

Most people have heard of the African American botanist, George Washington Carver. Grade school children may know him as the “Peanut Man.” However, some lesser-known African American scientists have contributed significantly to all realms of science, including technology, and medicine. A few of the industrious individuals are Patricia Bath, Charles Drew, and Garrett Morgan.

Patricia Bath was born in Harlem, NY in 1942. Patricia’s father was the first African American to gain the position of motorman in the subways. Education was critical to the Bath household, and her mother saved her wages to ensure that her children had proper schooling. Patricia was a good student, but it wasn’t until her mother bought her a chemistry set that she took science seriously. When she was only 16 years old, Ms. Bath was the youngest student to attend a cancer research workshop. She made great strides academically and worked with Dr. Robert Bernard. He was taken by her wit and research and decided to include some of her scientific discoveries a scientific paper, which he later presented in a lecture. Patricia graduated from high school in only two years and earned the Mademoiselle Magazine’s Merit Award. She received a Bachelor’s degree in 1964 and completed her medical degree with honors from Howard University in 1968. Ms. Bath began her internship at Harlem Hospital and joined a fellowship in ophthalmology at Columbia University. Through her studies and research, Patricia discovered that African Americans are eight times more likely to develop glaucoma than other ethnic people. Patricia completed her residency in 1973 and took professorships at two colleges in California. One of these positions was in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. She was the first woman who became a faculty member here. One of her many accomplishments was to co-establish the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. This was significant because said that this organization emphasized that “eyesight is a basic human right.” 

The Laserphaco Probe is Ms. Bath’s best-known invention. She began working on it in 1981 and finished it in 1986. This probe uses precision laser technology to treat cataracts. In 1988, she became the first female doctor to receive a patent for a medical device. Not only does she hold a patent here in the US, but in Japan, Canada, and Europe as well. Many people benefited from this new form of technology and regained their eyesight, even those who have been blind for 20-30 years! Patricia retired from the UCLA Medical Center in 1993 but remained an honorary medical staff member. As far as we know, Ms. Patricia Bath is still alive today, and she concentrates on making medical services to individuals in rural areas via technology.

One of the most significant men to contribute to the medical field is Charles Drew who was born in the early 1920’s in Washington DC. Charles thoroughly enjoyed playing sports and earned a sports scholarship to Amherst College in 1922. Four years later, he earned his Bachelor’s degree. He longed to pursue the medical profession; however, he did not have the means to do so. He accepted a post at Morgan College, or Morgan University now, as a biology professor. During this time, he became a bit more financially stable and applied to a few different med schools. He was accepted into McGill University. Mr. Drew was an excellent student and earned the neuroanatomy prize and became a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Medical Honor Society. He graduated second in his class in 1933 and received 2 degrees, Master of Surgery and Doctor of Medicine. During his internship and residency at Royal Victoria Hospital in Canada, Charles collaborated with Dr. John Beattie and explored complications of blood transfusions. Upon his father’s sudden death, Charles returned to the States and began teaching at Howard University in 1935. While teaching, he began his surgical residency at Freedmen’s Hospital in DC. A couple of years later, Dr. Drew took the post of instructor of surgery at the said university. He also became the Assistant Surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital. In 1938, Charles started his graduate studies and was accepted into a Rockefeller Fellowship at Columbia University. He also began his residency at the Presbyterian Hospital in New York City that same year. Charles met Minnie Robbins in April 1939 and were married five months later. They had four children. Dr. Drew spearheaded the surgical department at Howard University in 1941 and became the first African-American examiner for the Board of Surgery that same year. Also in 1941, Charles accepted the Assistant Director position for the pilot program for the national blood bank. This program was supported by the American Red Cross. Charles continued to work at Howard University until his tragic death in a car accident in 1950. According to Profiles In Science – US National Library of Medicine’s website, Charles Drew was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1944 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for his “highest and noblest achievement” regarding his work with blood plasma. 

As was just mentioned, Charles Drew was best known for his work in perfecting the procedure with blood transfusions and blood plasma. It was during his residency at Presbyterian Hospital that Drew worked with John Scudder. Together, they pursued hematology and phlebotomy, until one day, Charles established a technique to process and preserve the blood plasma. Blood plasma is the watery part of the blood, and it does not have any blood cells in it which causes it to last much longer than blood that has all of the red and white blood cells in it. Due to this fact, the plasma can be “banked” or stored for a long time, especially when the blood is dried. Then, it could be reconstituted when necessary. Mr. Drew received a Doctorate in 1940 and based his doctoral dissertation on his research. He was the first African American to earn such a degree from Columbia University. During the early years of WWII, five New York City hospitals, including Presbyterian Hospital, gathered and shipped blood plasma for the Blood for Britain project. Dr. Drew perfected and created standardized procedures for blood transfusions and processing the blood plasma. He also invented a mobile blood bank now called “bloodmobiles.” The US military asked Charles to develop another blood bank for the American soldiers heading to war. He accepted the challenge. Unfortunately, he faced some racism because the government did not want the blood from African American soldiers to be used. However, they later changed their mind advising that it can be used as long as it was labeled and set aside to be used for other African American soldiers. Dr. Drew soon resigned from his position because of the US government’s intolerance.

Garrett Morgan was born to a large family in Kentucky on March 4, 1877. Garrett only had an elementary education and moved to Ohio when he was in his early teens. Shortly after their move, an affluent landowner hired as a handyman. This position helped him pay for a private tutor, and he soon began working in a factory that made sewing machines. This was the turning point in Morgan’s life. While working in the plant, he learned about the functions and features of sewing machines, as well as how to fix them. Garrett decided to start his own company to repair these complex machines. His business thrived and married a seamstress named Mary Anne Hassek. They later moved his family from Cincinnati to Cleveland. Having encountered racism himself, Garrett Morgan worked closely with African American communities and was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1920, he began an African American newspaper entitled the Cleveland Call, now known as the Call and Post. Morgan went mostly blind in 1943 due to glaucoma and died twenty years later. Mr. Morgan was recognized by the American government for his invention of the traffic light and was also hailed as a hero for rescuing efforts when a tunnel exploded back in 1916.

Mr. Morgan had many interests and inventions. One of the greatest inventions happened by chance. During the time he had the sewing machine repair business, he developed a formula to make the yarn glide more smoothly through the needle, consequently reducing friction and burning the yarn and fabric. Garrett noticed that with his newly discovered chemical solution that the strands of wool straightened out a bit which resulted in a smoother texture and allowed the yarn to slide through the needle of the sewing machine easily. Garrett experimented with the solution on a friend’s dog, as well as on himself and noticed similar results. Thus, the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company was born. With this new invention, he became financially stable and continued to invent other devices. One such device was the gas mask, known as the “safety hood.” Garrett patented this valuable piece of equipment in 1914 and tried to sell it to fire departments. The US government was interested in the device, and it became the model for the gas masks used by the soldiers who fought in WWI. He ran into great difficulty when he tried to sell the “safety hood” to the southern states because of racism. Then, he decided to have a Caucasian man sell the item on his behalf, while he was the salesman’s assistant. From that time forth, the gas mask became a sought-after product. 

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