Dorothy Johnson Vaughan 

Dorothy Vaughan, featured in the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and portrayed in the movie of the same name by Octavia Spencer, was the first Black female Supervisor at the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) later known as The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Vaughan was born Dorothy Johnson on September 20, 1910, in Kansas City, Missouri, the daughter of Mr. Leonard H. Johnson and Mrs. Annie A. Johnson. She attended Beechurst High School, graduating as class valedictorian in 1925. The West Virginia Conference of the A. M. E. Sunday School Convention awarded her their first full scholarship to Wilberforce University where she graduated cum laude with a degree in Mathematics.

Following her graduation in 1929, she taught at the Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville, Va., for 12 years. In 1943 when she accepted employment with NACA at Langley Field, Virginia, Vaughan joined the first group of Blacks to be hired as mathematicians. They were placed in a segregated section and were responsible for doing the mathematical computations for the engineers conducting aeronautical experiments. Using slide rules, calculators, and film reading, they provided the engineers with the data needed to perform various performance tests, such as the variables affecting the drag and lift of aircraft.

In 1949, she was named supervisor of the segregated West Area Computing section, making her NACA’s first Black supervisor, as well as one of the few female supervisors. As mathematicians, the ladies of the West Area Computing section were the computers of that day. Vaughan was a steadfast advocate for the women of West Computing and even intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers valued her recommendations as to the best “girls” for a particular project, and for challenging assignments they often requested that she personally handle the work.

In anticipation of the West Area Section being dissolved and the human computers being replaced by electronic computers, Vaughan encouraged and motivated her co-workers to further their education by taking classes on weekends and evenings at Hampton Institute. She taught her colleagues FORTRAN, after first becoming an expert in the computer language herself. Always trying to improve herself and lead by example, Vaughan also took classes to further her education at Hampton Institute and Virginia State College throughout her career. Among her many accomplishments at NASA, she contributed to the Scout Vehicle Launch Program and collaborated in compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. 

Upon her retirement in 1971, she was regarded as one of NASA’s greatest minds. Her legacy lives on in the successful careers of notable West Computing alumni, including Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Eunice Smith, and Kathryn Peddrew, and the achievements of second-generation mathematicians and engineers such as Dr. Christine Mann Darden. 

The wife of Mr. Howard S. Vaughan, Jr.(deceased in 1955), Vaughan was a proud mother of six children (Ann being the eldest child), grandmother of ten children, and great-grandmother of fourteen children. Dorothy Vaughan died in Hampton, Virginia on November 10, 2008, at the age of ninety-eight.

On May 6, 2017, at Wilberforce University, Dorothy Vaughan was posthumously awarded an Honorary Doctoral Degree in Science. On June 1, 2017, she was inducted into the NACA/NASA Langley Hall of Honor. In the fall of 2017, she was honored by the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina through the dedication of the Dorothy J. Vaughan Academy of Technology. She also received posthumously the University of North Carolina Morehead Planetarium Medal of Science, along with many other awards.

Regarding her time working at NACA/NASA, Dorothy Vaughan is credited to have said, “I changed what I could change, and what I couldn’t, I endured.”

Return to full list of PIONEERS IN AVIATION