African American Innovators from Georgia

Black History Month allows Atlanta History Center to highlight African Americans’ incredible achievements in all aspects, including science and technology. From inventors to innovators, many remarkable Black Georgians have played a key role in changing the course of history through their pioneering work in these fields. These brilliant minds have overcome obstacles and discrimination to make important contributions to society and pave the way for future generations. Throughout Black History Month, we celebrate these pioneers and their invaluable contributions to society.

Louis Tompkins Wright, M.D., F.A.C.S. (Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, Library of Congress, LOT 13074, no. 631. 

Dr. Louis T. Wright, Surgeon

Louis Tompkins Wright was born in LaGrange in 1891. His father, Ceah, was born into slavery, but completed medical school and became a doctor and Methodist preacher. After Wright’s father died, his mother married William Fletcher Penn, an Atlanta physician who was the first Black person to graduate from the Yale School of Medicine.  

Following in his father and stepfather’s footsteps, Wright graduated from Clark University in 1911 and earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1915. Wright completed his postgraduate residency training at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. While at Freedmen’s Hospital, Wright demonstrated the efficacy in African Americans of the Schick test used to determine an individual’s vulnerability to diphtheria.  

In 1916, Wright returned to Atlanta, went into practice with his stepfather, and joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also joined the military before the end of World War I and did a tour of duty in France as part of the U.S. Army Medical Corps. While in the military, Wright developed the first intradermal injection for smallpox.  

Wright moved to New York in 1919 and set up a private practice. In New York, he became the first Black surgeon for the New York police department, the first African American appointed to the surgical staff at a segregated New York hospital, the first Black doctor to head an integrated public hospital, the first to experiment on humans with the antibiotic chlortetracycline, and one of the first Black surgeons admitted to the American College of Surgeons. He was influential for his medical research and advocacy for racial justice in medicine, as well as his decades-long leadership role with the NAACP. He died in 1952.

Henry Ossian Flipper, circa 1877. Photo by Kennedy, Center for Legislative Archives, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration 

Henry O. Flipper, Engineer

Henry Ossian Flipper was born into slavery near Thomasville in 1856. He rose to fame as the first African American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. After graduating from West Point and earning his commission, Flipper was assigned to the l0th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. Popularly known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the 10th Cavalry Regiment was one of the all-Black regiments in the U.S. Army.  

The Buffalo Soldiers played a significant, if controversial, role in development of the American West. Among other duties, they monitored Native American populations, built roads, and protected settlers to support U.S. expansion and development during the Indian Wars. In 1951, the last Buffalo Soldier regiments were disbanded and integrated into other units.  

A capable engineer, one of Flipper’s best-known achievements bears his name, Flipper’s Ditch. Flipper’s Ditch is a drainage system at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, that minimized malaria by removing standing water. Flipper’s military career was cut short when he was charged with misappropriating government funds while at Fort Davis, Texas. He was court-martialed on September 17, 1881, and acquitted. Despite being exonerated, Flipper was discharged from the Army on June 30, 1882.  

After leaving the military, Flipper worked in varying capacities as a civil mining engineer, surveyor, translator, and historian. He moved to Atlanta in 1931 at 75 and died here in 1940. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter posthumously granted Flipper an honorable discharge and in 1999 President Bill Clinton gave him a presidential pardon. 

Rick Kittles, City of Hope 

Dr. Rick Kittles, Biologist

Rick Kittles was born in Sylvania in 1976. He spent his formative years in Islip, Long Island, New York. Kittles received a bachelor’s degree in biology from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1989 before starting a career as a high school teacher, first in New York and later in Washington, D.C.  

From 1995 to 1999, Kittles worked as a researcher with the New York African Burial Ground Project, gathering genetic material from the exhumed remains of more than 400 African Americans interred in an 18th-century graveyard and comparing the results to contemporary African populations to determine their ancestral origins. In doing so, Kittles became one of the earliest geneticists to trace African ancestry using DNA.  

In 1998, Kittles obtained a Ph.D. in biology from George Washington University. That same year, Kittles became a faculty member at Howard University where he helped establish the National Human Genome Center. Kittles co-founded African Ancestry with Gina Paige in 2003 to offer genetic testing service specializing in tracing the ancestry of people with African lineage. Kittles is also known for his work on prostate cancer and has published on genetic variation and prostate cancer genetics of African Americans. He is currently the senior vice president for research at the Morehouse School of Medicine. 

Dr. Reatha C. King in a lab at National Institute of Standards and Technology with the U.S. Department of Commerce, 1960s. NIST 

Dr. Reatha Clark King, Chemist

Reatha King was born to sharecroppers in Pavo in southwest Georgia in 1938. As a child, King and her family moved to Moultrie, Georgia, where she attended public school. She graduated from Moultrie High School for Negro Youth as class valedictorian. Due to her academic promise, King secured a scholarship to Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta. At Clark, she earned a bachelor’s degree in science with concentrations in chemistry and mathematics in 1958.  

After receiving a fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, King attended the University of Chicago where she obtained a master’s degree in science in 1960 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1963. King went to work at the National Bureau of Standards, becoming the organization’s first Black female chemist. While at the bureau, King invented a coiled tube that allowed fuel traveling through it to cool instead of exploding. Her invention was crucial in the space race. She also authored a 1967 paper on oxygen difluoride, a key ingredient in rocket fuel that has since become a fundamental component. In 1968, King moved to New York City and worked as an assistant professor at the City University of New York. In 1970, she became associate dean for the School of Mathematics & Natural Science and associate dean for Academic Affairs in 1974.  

Three years later, King received her master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University and became president of Metropolitan State University in Minnesota that same year. In 1988, General Mills hired King as vice president of the General Mills corporation and president and executive director of the General Mills Foundation. She worked at General Mills until her retirement in 2002. In 2011, she began working with Allina Health systems as a corporate director.

Charles Chappelle. New York Age, New York, Thursday, January 12, 1911 

Charles W. Chappelle, Architect and Engineer 

Charles Ward Chappelle was born in Eatonton in 1872 to African Methodist Episcopal Reverend George W. Chapelle and Anna Johnson Chapelle. He attended Knox Institute, a private elementary and secondary school in Athens and Morris Brown College in Atlanta where he trained as an electrical engineer and architect. In 1897, Chappelle moved to Pittsburgh to work for U.S. Steel as an electrician. By 1910, he had moved to Brooklyn and worked as an architect.  

In January 1911, Chappelle was the only African American to participate in the First Industrial Aeroplane Show in New York. The week-long event highlighted innovation in aeronautics and full-size aircraft for an audience of more than 15,000 people. Less than a decade after the Wright Brothers had shown that powered, sustained, and controlled airplane flight was possible, Chapelle debuted an aircraft of his design. The plane, which took Chappelle a year to build, was supposed to be able to travel long distances safely. Chappelle’s aircraft was awarded for its design and capabilities and was displayed at the United States Aeronautical Reserve headquarters in Manhattan.  

Following his success at the air show, Chappelle helped establish the first Black-owned airplane company, serving as the company’s vice president for a time. Afterward, in 1913, Chappelle set up the African Union Company, a profitable Ghana-based company specializing in the global export of African resources, including mahogany and cocoa. Chappelle headed the company until its closure in 1930. He died in 1941 in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Mary Logan Reddick engaged in research. Atlanta University Bulletin (newsletter), series III, number 67: July 1949 

Dr. Mary Logan Reddick, Neuroembryologist  

Mary Logan Reddick was born in 1914 in Atlanta. After graduating from high school early, she attended Spelman College at 15 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science in 1935.  

The Rockefeller Foundation awarded Reddick a fellowship in 1937. The award allowed Reddick to pursue a master’s degree in science at Atlanta University. Reddick’s master’s thesis centered on understanding how a fertilized egg becomes a complex organism. This research gave a further understanding of human fetal development. At 21, in the same year that she obtained her master’s degree, Reddick became a biology instructor at Spelman. In 1939, she began teaching biology at nearby Morehouse College, becoming the first female biology instructor at the school.  

Reddick received a second Rockefeller education fellowship and attended Radcliffe College, now a part of Harvard University. At Radcliffe, Reddick’s research focused on tissue transplantation and transplanting tissues and nerve cell differentiation in chick embryos to gain insight into how much the brain depends on connections with adjacent tissues. She earned a second master’s in 1943 and a Ph.D. in 1944 at Radcliffe.  

After her fellowship ended, Reddick returned to Morehouse to teach. While at Morehouse, she became the first female full professor and the first female biology department chair. In 1952, Reddick became the first African American woman to receive a Ford Foundation science fellowship. With the fellowship, she traveled to England and studied embryology at Cambridge University. Following her return to the U.S., Reddick became a faculty member at Atlanta University, now Clark Atlanta University, a position she held until her death in 1966.  

Roderic I. Pettigrew in 2022. Cmichel67, via Wikimedia Commons 

Dr. Roderic I. Pettigrew, Physicist

Roderic Ivan Pettigrew was born in Waynesboro in 1951 to Cleveland and Edwina Pettigrew. His father was a former president of Fort Valley State University, an HBCU founded in Fort Valley, Georgia, in 1895. Pettigrew attended Monroe High School in Albany, Georgia, and was able to forego his senior year of high school, attending Morehouse College instead on a full scholarship. He graduated with his bachelor’s degree in physics in 1972. Afterward, Pettigrew attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, earning a master’s degree in nuclear science.  

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pettigrew earned his Ph.D. in applied radiation physics in 1977. Two years later, he obtained a medical degree in radiology at the University of Miami Medical School in Florida. After his residency at Emory University in Atlanta, Pettigrew pursued additional training in nuclear medicine at the University of California, San Diego. In 1983, Pettigrew commenced a position as a clinical research scientist at Picker International. There, Pettigrew began work in developing a system for four-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, for the heart.  

Pettigrew then held faculty appointments at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, where he taught cardiology, radiology, and bioengineering. In 2002, he became director of the Emory Center for Magnetic Resonance Research.  Pettigrew later left Atlanta to become the founding director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. In 2017, he left NIBIB for Texas A&M University, where he is the chief executive officer of EnHealth and executive dean for EnMed.

Dr. Sekazi Kauze Mtingwa. International Science Council 

Dr. Sekazi Kauze Mtingwa, Physicist

Sekazi Kauze Mtingwa was born in 1949 as Michael Von Sawyer in Atlanta. Mtingwa was educated at racially segregated schools for most of his primary and secondary education. During his sophomore year in high school, the Georgia State Science Fair was integrated. Mtingwa participated and won a first-place prize in biology, which included books on science, mathematics, and engineering.  

After high school, Mtingwa attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics in 1971. During graduate school, Mtingwa changed his name to Sekazi Kauze Mtingwa. The name comes from a phrase in Bondei, a Tanzanian language: Sekazi (male hard worker) Kauze (inquisitive) Mtingwa (literally “breastbone,” but the word refers to someone who can overcome many problems).  

He received a Ph.D. in theoretical high energy physics from Princeton University in 1976. After holding post-doctoral positions at the University of Rochester and the University of Maryland, Mtingwa was awarded a Ford Foundation fellowship in 1980 before working with Fermilab in Illinois as a research physicist in 1981. At Fermilab, Mtingwa and James Bjorken developed the theory of intrabeam scattering.  

From 1988 to 1991, Mtingwa worked at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. There, he came up with ideas about advanced wakefields, plasma acceleration, and photon colliders. Mtingwa joined the physics department at North Carolina A&T State University in 1991. While at the institution, he chaired the physics department, was instrumental in establishing the institution’s Interdisciplinary Research Center, and co-founded the National Society of Black Physicists. He returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an MLK Visiting Professor in 2001, where he worked at the Laboratory for Nuclear Science. In 2008, Mtingwa became a fellow of the American Physical Society. He retired in 2012.