Who Is the Greatest Mathematician of the Past 100 Years?

Article by Emma Bowles

Artwork by Kin Tuet

Born in 1918, Creola Katherine Johnson is arguably the greatest mathematician of the past 100 years. There is no doubt that Johnson was an extremely gifted mathematician but that is not the only thing that makes her ‘great’. This essay will demonstrate how, whilst Johnson was an outstanding mathematician, her devotion to her family also made her great, as did her drive and determination to learn and teach others, and her ability to overcome the obstacles she faced due to her race and sex.

Johnson was chosen to be one of only three African American students to attend West Virginia State College where she graduated at just eighteen years old [1]. She then worked as a teacher before starting her job at NASA. When her husband was diagnosed with cancer, she continued to work to support her family whilst also caring for her three children. When she first applied to work at NASA, then called NACA, she was denied but her determination led her to apply the next year when she got a job as a “calculator”.

Johnson worked at NASA from 1953-1986 and whilst she was there her calculations and her mind were vital for America’s first human spaceflight, America’s first orbital spaceflight and the Apollo 11 moon landing [2]. Water purification systems, adjustable smoke detectors and artificial limbs are just a few of the inventions we would not have today without space travel [3] and therefore may not have had without Katherine Johnson. During her time at NASA Johnson also became the first woman in the Flight Research Division to receive credit as an author of a research report [2], paving the way for generations of women to come.

Some may argue that Alan Turing or Albert Einstein is the greatest mathematician of the last 100 years and there is no doubt that they both had brilliant minds. Turing did amazing work in the field of computer science and artificial intelligence, even though those fields did not properly exist during his life, and Einstein transformed our understanding of the universe. These are not small things. However, Johnson was more than ‘just’ a brilliant mathematician.

She made sure her voice was heard in a room full of white men who looked down on her, which led to hundreds of African American women working at NASA, getting the recognition they deserved. She was personally called on by John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, to check the calculations done by the electronic calculating machines with him saying, “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” [2] That flight was the turning point in the Space Race pushing the Americans ahead of the Russians and without Johnson it would not have gone ahead. Johnson did all of this while raising her three children and being an advocate for both women’s rights and anti-racism.

To conclude, Johnson is the greatest mathematician of the past 100 years not only because of her skills in mathematics, but because of the advancements she made for women, especially black women, in STEM workplaces. Johnson used her brilliant mathematical mind, and the position in which that put her, to do so much more than advance mathematics.

Reference List:

[1] May S. Who Was Katherine Johnson? NASA. 18-01-17. https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/nasa-knows/who-was-katherine- johnson-5-8 (Accessed 30-08-20)

[2] Shetterly M. L. Katherine Johnson Biography. NASA. 24-02-20. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography (Accessed 30-08-20)

[3] 20 Inventions We Wouldn't Have Without Space Travel. Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology. https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/infographics/infographic.view.php?id=11358 (Accessed 30-08-20)

Further Reading/Resources:

Movie- Hidden Figures

An incredible and inspiring untold true story about three women at NASA who wereinstrumental in one of history’s greatest operations – the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. (Description from https://www.amazon.co.uk/)

Available on Amazon, Google Play and other movie stores

Article- Biography of Katherine Johnson 


Article- John Glenn’s Earth Orbit