Katherine Johnson and William W. S. Claytor: An HBCU Connection

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Katherine Johnson was born on August 26, 1918 in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia and, by now, you may know that she grew up to be an integral part of the nation's space program as a valuable mathematician in NASA.  You may not know about the connection she shares with some members of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

As a child, Katherine Johnson began high school while still young and she eventually attended college at the historically black, West Virginia State College (West Virginia State College was founded in 1891 as the West Virginia Colored Institute).

There, at West Virginia State College, she met Dr. William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor, who was the third African American in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.  

Dr. Claytor had studied at Howard University, where he earned two degrees and where he, remarkably, was taught by the first and second African Americans in the United States to earn Ph.D's in mathematics:

  • Dr. Elbert Cox, Ph.D., Cornell, 1924 (faculty member at Howard University)
  • Dr. Dudley Woodward, Sr., Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1928 (Dean and faculty member at Howard)

Dr. William Waldron Schieffelin Claytor

After studying at Howard University, Claytor received a recommendation, from Dr. Dudley Woodward, Sr., for the Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania.  William W. S. Claytor began studying at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1930 - 1931 academic year and he won one of its most prestigious awards, the Harrison Fellowship in Mathematics, by the time he finished.  

He was seen as a talented student and he completed his dissertation in "Peano continua - a subset of point-set topology." 

Topology is the study of geometric properties and spacial relations that are not affected by deformations or changes in size and shape.  In other words the study of objects and the properties that they retain as they are bent, twisted, stretched or deformed.  

Claytor's dissertation was seen as an advance in this area of mathematics and Claytor completed his work at Penn under the doctoral tutelage of John R. Kline, an expert in this field.  William W. S. Claytor, thus, received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania, in 1933. 

Dr. Claytor then went on to teach at historically black, West Virginia State College, where he met the young Katherine Johnson, who was by this time a student there.

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Katherine Johnson said of Dr. Claytor, that he not only told her that she could become a great mathematician, he made sure that she was prepared to become one.  According to a NASA biography, William W. S. Claytor made sure that Katherine took all of the necessary math classes to pursue her dreams and he even created a special class on the topic of the geometry of outer space, just for her.

Katherine Johnson, as you may know, began working for NASA in 1953 and Dr. Claytor eventually made his way back to Howard University where he became a member of the faculty and continued to train young mathematical minds for almost twenty years. 

Thus, Katherine Johnson benefited from direct, and indirect, interactions with some historical figures in mathematics as a result of her attending an HBCU.

On July 26, 2014, from 10:57 a.m. to 11:42 a.m. EDT, the moon crossed between NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the sun, a phenomenon called a lunar transit. A lunar transit happens approximately twice a year, causing a partial solar eclipse that can only be seen from SDO's point of view. Images of the eclipse show a crisp lunar horizon, because the moon has no atmosphere that would distort light. This image shows the blended result of two SDO wavelengths - one in 304 wavelength and another in 171 wavelength. Image Credit: NASA/SDO

On July 26, 2014, from 10:57 a.m. to 11:42 a.m. EDT, the moon crossed between NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the sun, a phenomenon called a lunar transit. A lunar transit happens approximately twice a year, causing a partial solar eclipse that can only be seen from SDO's point of view. Images of the eclipse show a crisp lunar horizon, because the moon has no atmosphere that would distort light. This image shows the blended result of two SDO wavelengths - one in 304 wavelength and another in 171 wavelength.
Image Credit: NASA/SDO

 

Copyright Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2017.

References:

"Katherine Johnson:  The Girl Who Loved to Count."  NASA. NASA History. November 24, 2015.

Shetterly, Margot Lee.  "Katherine Johnson Biography."  NASA:  From Hidden to Modern Figures." December 1, 2016.

"University History:  Pioneer African-American Mathematicians."  University of Pennsylvania.  Archives: Historical Figures, Exhibits.  Accessed January 20, 2017.

"Our History Runs Deep."  West Virginia State College.  Accessed, January 20, 2017.

"Who is Katherine Johnson? (Grades 5-8)."  NASA:  NASA Knows!.  Last updated, January 18, 2017.  Accessed, January 20, 2017.

"William W. Shiefflin Claytor."  Mathematical Association of America.  Accessed January 20, 201.7  www.maa.org/programs/underrepresented-groups/summa/summa-archival-record/william-claytor