Dorothy Johnson was born in Kansas City, Missouri on September 20, 1910. At age seven, her parents, Leonard and Anne Johnson moved the family to Morgantown, West Virginia. She graduated from Beechurst High School in 1925, and four years later, received a Bachelor of Science degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio. In 1932, she married Howard Vaughan. For the next few years, Dorothy Vaughan divided her time between being a homemaker and a mathematics teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. In 1943, the family moved to Newport News, Virginia, and Vaughan was employed as a mathematician at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in what she thought would be a temporary job. A beneficiary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, Dorothy Vaughan was among the first group of African Americans to be hired as mathematicians and scientists. The executive order prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, and ethnicity in the defense industry.
However, even with the executive order, state and local laws required “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, where she was required to use separate dining and restroom facilities. At NACA, she was responsible for calculating mathematical computations for engineers conducting aeronautical experiments in wind tunnels on the variables affecting drag and lift of aircraft.
In 1949, she became the first black supervisor at NACA when she was promoted to manager of the West Area Computers. This workgroup was composed entirely of African American female mathematicians. Dorothy Vaughan led the West Area Computing program for a decade. Then in 1958, as NACA was transitioning into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the agency abolished the segregated working environment. She joined the new Analysis and Computation Division, becoming an expert FORTRAN programmer, and worked on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program, one of the nation’s most successful and reliable launch vehicles, used for launching a 385-pound satellite into a 500-mile orbit.
She sought other management positions at NASA but never received another one. She retired in 1971. During the final decade of her career, Dorothy Vaughan worked closely with fellow NASA mathematicians Katherine G. Johnson and Mary Jackson on the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, which brought confidence back to America’s space program. She died on November 10, 2008. Her legacy and the story of the other women of West Computing lives on in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.