Biography of Dorothy Vaughan, Groundbreaking NASA Mathematician

Group photo of NASA computers
Dorothy Vaughan (left) with other NASA computers.

Smith Collection / Getty Images

Dorothy Vaughan (September 20, 1910 – November 10, 2008) was an African American mathematician and computer. In her time working for NASA, she became the first African American woman to hold a supervisory position and helped the institution transition to computer programming.

Fast Facts: Dorothy Vaughan

  • Full Name: Dorothy Johnson Vaughan
  • Occupation: Mathematician and computer programmer
  • Born: September 20, 1910 in Kansas City, Missouri
  • Died: November 10, 2008 in Hampton, Virginia
  • Parents: Leonard and Annie Johnson
  • Spouse: Howard Vaughan (m. 1932); they had six children
  • Education: Wilberforce University, B.A. in mathematics

Early Life

Dorothy Vaughan was born in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Leonard and Annie Johnson. The Johnson family soon moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where they stayed throughout Dorothy’s childhood. She quickly proved to be a talented student, graduating early from high school at the age of 15 as her graduating class’ valedictorian.

At Wilberforce University, a historically black college in Ohio, Vaughan studied mathematics. Her tuition was covered by a full-ride scholarship from the West Virginia Conference of the A.M.E. Sunday School Convention. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1929, only 19 years old, cum laude. Three years later, she married Howard Vaughan, and the couple moved to Virginia, where they initially lived with Howard’s wealthy and well-respected family.

From Teacher to Computer

Although Vaughan was encouraged by her professors at Wilberforce to go to graduate school at Howard University, she declined, instead taking a job at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia, so that she could help support her family during the Great Depression. During this time, she and her husband Howard had six children: two daughters and four sons. Her position and education placed her as an admired leader in her community.

Dorothy Vaughan taught high school for 14 years during the era of racially segregated education. In 1943, during World War II, she took a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor to NASA) as a computer. NACA and the rest of the federal agencies had technically desegregated in 1941 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Vaughan was assigned to the West Area Computing group at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Despite women of color being recruited actively, they were still segregated into groups separate from their white counterparts.

Dorothy Vaughan
 Nasa.gov

The computing group consisted of expert female mathematicians who dealt with complex mathematical calculations, nearly all done by hand. During the war, their work was connected to the war effort, since the government firmly believed that the war would be won on the strength of air forces. The scope of activity at NACA expanded considerably after WWII ended and the space program began in earnest.

For the most part, their work involved reading data, analyzing it, and plotting it for use by the scientists and engineers. Although the women—both white and black—often held degrees similar to (or even more advanced than) the men who worked at NASA, they were only hired for lower positions and pay. Women could not be hired as engineers.

Supervisor and Innovator

In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to supervise the West Area Computers, but not in an official supervisory role. Instead, she was given the role as acting head of the group (after their previous supervisor, a white woman, died). This meant the job didn’t come with the expected title and pay bump. It took several years and advocating for herself before she was finally given the role of supervisor in an official capacity and the benefits that came with it.

Vaughan did not just advocate for herself, but also worked hard to advocate for more opportunities for women. Her intention was not just to help her West Computing colleagues, but women across the organization, including white women. Eventually, her expertise came to be highly valued by the engineers at NASA, who relied heavily on her recommendations to match projects with the computers whose skills aligned best.

In 1958, NACA became NASA and segregated facilities were completely and finally abolished. Vaughan worked in the Numerical Techniques division and, in 1961, shifted her focus to the new frontier of electronic computing. She figured out, earlier than many others, that electronic computers were going to be the future, so she set out to make sure she—and the women in her group—were prepared. During her time at NASA, Vaughan also contributed directly to projects on the space program with her work on the Scout Launch Vehicle Program, a particular type of rocket designed to launch small satellites into orbit around the Earth.

Vaughan taught herself the programming language FORTRAN that was used for early computing, and from there, she taught it to many of her colleagues so they would be prepared for the inevitable transition away from manual computing and towards electronics. Eventually, she and several of her West Area Computing colleagues joined the newly formed Analysis and Computation Division, a race- and gender-integrated group working to expand the horizons of electronic computing. Although she tried to receive another management position, she was never granted one again.

Dorothy Vaughan retirement party
Photographs from Dorothy Vaughan's retirement party. Vaughan retired from NASA in 1971.  Courtesy Vaughan Family / Nasa.gov

Later Life and Legacy

Dorothy Vaughan worked at Langley for 28 years while raising six children (one of whom followed in her footsteps and worked at NASA’s Langley facility). In 1971, Vaughan finally retired at the age of 71. She continued to be active in her community and her church throughout retirement, but lived a fairly quiet life. Vaughan died on November 10, 2008 at the age of 98, less than a week after the election of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

Vaughan’s story came to public attention in 2016, when Margot Lee Shetterly published her nonfiction book "Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race." The book was made into a popular feature film, "Hidden Figures," which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards and won the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble (the guild’s equivalent of a best picture award). Vaughan is one of the three main characters in the film, along with colleagues Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. She’s portrayed by Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer.

Sources

  • Dorothy Vaughan. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  • Shetterly, Margot Lee. Dorothy Vaughan Biography. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
  • Shetterly, Margot Lee. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. William Morrow & Company, 2016.