Celebrating Black History Month: A Short History of Racism in Science, and Those Who Broke the Mould

While the topic of gender bias in science has made headlines recently, there’s another, interacting issue affecting Western science that has so far received less attention – racial and ethnic bias. Alice Dore, a PhD student in BIO, explains.

Science has a long and troubled history with both gender and race. In the 1800s, phrenology, the pseudoscientific practice of using the size and shape of the skull to infer the subject’s mental attributes, was appropriated by some as a scientific justification for racism and sexism. Some abolitionists argued that the ‘weakness and timidity’ thought to be apparent from the skull shape of Africans meant slaves could be safely freed without risk of violent revenge. However, medical doctor Charles Caldwell (who inspired the equally nasty Django Unchained character Calvin Candie) thought these skull measurements proved “Africans must have a master”. In the same century, Darwin’s theory of natural selection underwent an unfortunate mutation into social Darwinism and eugenics.

These movements argued that ‘civilised’ society had a scientific and moral right to dominate the ‘inferior’ races.  Those deemed to be ‘racially weaker’ were discouraged, or forcibly prevented, from reproducing, in an effort to prevent the spread of ‘undesirable’ traits. These practices are not as confined to the past as we might hope – as recently as 2010, female members of California’s predominantly non-white prison population were subjected to involuntary sterilisation.

The unethical use of racial minorities in scientific experimentation is perhaps most famously exemplified by the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The study began in 1932, tracking the development of ‘untreated syphilis in the negro male’. Four hundred black men, most of whom were poor and uneducated, were included in the study without informed consent, and treated only with placebos. By the time the study ended 40 years later, over a hundred of the participants had died from syphilis or related complications, and many had passed the infection onto their wives.

A long-term consequence of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study is a distrust of medical research among African Americans, which became one of several barriers to representative clinical research. To this day, both ethnic minorities and women are underrepresented in clinical trials. Conventional knowledge on effectiveness and side effects of drugs may therefore only really apply to the white men those drugs are generally trialled on.

Minorities and women are underrepresented in science and engineering occupations, particularly at higher levels. In fact, anti-black hiring bias across US labour markets has been found to be as much of a problem today as it was in 1989.

The reasons for this are likely to be numerous and complicated. Research on racial hiring bias in science and engineering specifically is scarce, but some barriers to the inclusion of minorities in science industry and academia are starting to emerge. One study has found that professors are more likely to respond to an email from a student asking to discuss research opportunities if the email carries a male and stereotypically white-sounding name.  A similar trend has been identified in the success of National Institute of Health grant applications – even when education, employment history and publications were controlled for, applicants with ‘black-sounding’ names were found to be less likely to be funded.

Another probable obstacle barrier to women and minorities in science is the way scientists are represented in popular culture and the media. The famous ‘Draw a Scientist’ test reveals that in the imagination of most people, a scientist is a white man. This isn’t very surprising, given the fairly homogenous selection of fictional scientists in films and TV. The Big Bang Theory, one of the most-watched TV shows in the US, has expanded its cast of characters to include several female scientists, but has not managed to buck the stereotype of scientists as primarily white and sometimes Asian. People who grow up with this image of what a scientist looks like, and don’t fit that image themselves, may feel less comfortable or confident studying and working in the field.

Positive representation of women and minorities in science could be key in challenging these stereotypes. Since October is Black History Month in the UK, what better time to celebrate the scientific achievements of some inspiring black women and men?

John Edmonstone (1793-1822)John Edmonstone

John Edmonstone was born into slavery, probably in Guyana, and learned taxidermy while accompanying his slavemaster’s son-in-law on hunting trips. After he was freed, Edmonstone travelled from his home country of Guyana to Edinburgh, where he worked as a taxidermist at the Natural History Museum and taught the craft to Edinburgh University students. One of those students was the 17-year-old Charles Darwin. Edmonstone’s stories of the wildlife in the tropics reportedly inspired Darwin to take his trip to the Galapagos.


Angie Turner King (1905-2004)Angie Turner King

Angie Turner King was born into a segregated coal-mining community in West Virginia. After supporting herself throughout school by waiting tables and washing dishes, she earned degrees in chemistry and mathematics. In 1951 she completed her PhD in mathematics and went on to work as a teacher at West Virginia State College. Several of her students became notable scientists themselves, including Margaret Strickland Collins, Jasper Brown Jeffries, and Katherine Goble Johnson. Johnson, who featured in Hidden Figures, described King as ‘a wonderful teacher – bright, caring and very rigorous’.

David Harold Blackwell (1919-2010)David Harold Blackwell

The statistician David Harold Blackwell focused his work on Game Theory and how it applied to decision-making in government and the private sector. Among his impressive list of professional achievements are having multiple theorems named after him, presiding over the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, mentoring 65 PhD students, authoring two textbooks and publishing more than 80 papers. Blackwell was both the first tenured black professor at University of California Berkeley, and the first African-American to be accepted into the National Academy of Sciences.

Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003)Marie Maynard Daly

After obtaining her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Chemistry, Marie Maynard Daly made history by becoming the first woman to achieve a PhD in Chemistry in the US. One of Daly’s research foci was the cause of heart attacks, and she worked in a group that discovered the link between high cholesterol diet and artery blockages. She was also committed to increasing the number of people of colour in medical schools and postgraduate science. In 1988 Daly started a scholarship for minority students at Queens College.

O'Neil Ray Collins

O’Neil Ray Collins (1931-1989)

O’Neil Ray Collins was born in Louisiana to cotton pickers. After earning a BSc from Southern University, Collins conducted his doctoral research on myxomycete mating types. During his career, Collins became an expert on genetics, mycology and botany. He earned a tenure track position at University of California Berkeley, where he was made Chair of the Department of Biology, and was instrumental in establishing the Ethnic Studies Department. Collins also helped to found the Graduate Minority Program, which worked to facilitate the admission and success of minority students.

Mae Jemison (1956- )Mae Jemison

Mae Jemison graduated from Stanford with a degree in chemical engineering and Afro-American studies, before becoming a doctor of medicine at Cornell. She worked as a medical officer with the Peace Corps in West Africa, and worked on projects on the Hepatitis B vaccine and rabies. In 1988 Jemison completed training with NASA, and in 1992 became the first woman of colour to enter space. She continues to work on various projects on science, technology, health and outreach. Jemison also speaks four languages – Russian, Japanese and Swahili as well as English.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock (1968-)Maggie Aderin-Pocok

Since she wasn’t able to afford a good telescope as a child, Maggie Aderin-Pocock set about building one herself. She has now worked on building the Gemini instrument in Chile, worked for the Ministry of Defence to design landmine detectors, and co-presents the BBC series The Sky at Night. Having spoken openly about being perceived as not ‘looking like a scientist’, Aderin-Pocock is committed to changing the stereotype of a scientist through outreach work with schoolchildren.


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