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Katherine G. Johnson

Mathematician and computer scientist Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia to Joylette and Joshua Coleman. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a farmer and janitor. From a young age, Johnson enjoyed mathematics and could easily solve mathematical equations. Her father moved Johnson’s family to Institute, West Virginia, which was 125 miles away from the family home so that Johnson and her siblings could attend school. She attended West Virginia State High School and graduated from high school at age fourteen. Johnson received her B.S. degree in French and mathematics in 1932 from West Virginia State University (formerly West Virginia State College). At that time, Dr. W.W. Schiefflin Claytor, the third African American to earn a Ph.D. degree in mathematics, created a special course in analytic geometry specifically for Johnson. In 1940, she attended West Virginia University to obtain a graduate degree. Johnson was one of the first African Americans to enroll in the mathematics program. However, family issues kept her from completing the required courses.

After college, Johnson began teaching in elementary and high schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1953, she joined Langley Research Center (LaRC) as a research mathematician for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Johnson was assigned to the all-male flight research division. Her knowledge made her invaluable to her superiors and her assertiveness won her a spot in previously all-male meetings. NACA became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Upon leaving The Flight Mechanics Branch, Johnson went on to join the Spacecraft Controls Branch where she calculated the flight trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American to go into space in 1959. Johnson also verified the mathematics behind John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth in 1962 and calculated the flight trajectory for Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969. She retired from NASA in 1986.

Johnson has been the recipient of NASA’s Lunar Spacecraft and Operation’s Group Achievement Award and NASA’s Apollo Group Achievement Award. She received the NASA Langely Research Center Special Achievement Award in 1971, 1980, 1984, 1985 and 1986. Johnson has co-authored twenty-six scientific papers and has a historically unique listing as a female co-author in a peer-reviewed NASA report. She also received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the State University of New York in Farmingdale in 1998 and in 1999, was named Outstanding Alumnus of the Year by West Virginia State College. In 2006, Johnson was awarded an honorary Doctor of Science from Capitol College of Laurel, Maryland. Johnson lives with her husband Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson in Hampton, Virginia and has three daughters Constance, Joylette and Kathy.

Johnson passed away on February 24, 2020.

Katherine Johnson was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 6, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.017

Sex

Female

Interview Date

2/6/2012

Last Name

Johnson

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

G. Coleman

Occupation
Schools

West Virginia State High School

West Virginia State University

White Sulphur Elementary

Bethune Elementary School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Katherine

Birth City, State, Country

White Sulphur

HM ID

JOH38

Favorite Season

Fall

Sponsor

National Science Foundation

State

West Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Hawaii

Favorite Quote

For Pete's sake.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Virginia

Interview Description
Birth Date

8/26/1918

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Hampton

Country

USA

Death Date

2/24/2020

Short Description

Computer scientist Katherine G. Johnson (1918 - 2020) worked for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for thirty-three years, where she calculated the trajectory for John Glenn’s orbit in 1962 and the Apollo 11 flight in 1969.

Employment

National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Main Sponsor
Main Sponsor URL
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Katherine Johnson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Katherine Johnson lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Katherine Johnson describes her mother's history

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Katherine Johnson describes her father's history

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Katherine Johnson talks about White Sulphur Springs and how her parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Katherine Johnson talks about her early childhood years

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Katherine Johnson describes her early school days at White Sulphur Grade School

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Katherine Johnson talks about her inquisitive nature and early education

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Katherine Johnson remembers her favorite teachers

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Katherine Johnson describes growing up during the Great Depression near West Virginia State University

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Katherine Johnson talks about some of the famous personalities that visited West Virginia State University High School

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Katherine Johnson talks about her brothers

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Katherine Johnson remembers attending West Virginia State University High School

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Katherine Johnson describes the racial climate in Institute and Charleston, West Virginia

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Katherine Johnson describes her extracurricular activities in at West Virginia State High School

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Katherine Johnson talks about her introduction to aeronautics

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Katherine Johnson talks about her involvement with Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Katherine Johnson talks about her mentor John F. Matthews

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Katherine Johnson talks about her early career and marriage to James Francis Gobel

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Katherine Johnson talks about her early work at NASA

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Katherine Johnson describes her experience as a black woman at NASA

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Katherine Johnson talks about Sputnik and the history of space flight (part 1)

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Katherine Johnson talks about Sputnik and the history of space flight (part 2)

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Katherine Johnson talks about her work computing flight trajectories for NASA

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Katherine Johnson talks about her marriage to Lieutenant Colonel James Johnson

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Katherine Johnson talks about her publications

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Katherine Johnson discusses other aspects of her work at NASA

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Katherine Johnson discusses the advent of computers and her work as a mathematician

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Katherine Johnson shares her greatest achievement

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Katherine Johnson talks about the community of scientists at NASA

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Katherine Johnson shares her thoughts about the unique of her work

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Katherine Johnson shares her thoughts about current space travel

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Katherine Johnson talks about honors and interactions with other space professionals

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Katherine Johnson reflects on her career

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Katherine Johnson talks about other at African Americans at NASA

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Katherine Johnson talks about her daughters and her teaching philosophy

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Katherine Johnson shares her hopes and concerns for the black community

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Katherine Johnson talks about how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Katherine Johnson describes her photos