Mae Carol Jemison (born October 17, 1956) is an American physician and NASA astronaut. She became the first African American woman to travel in space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12, 1992.
Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, the youngest child of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Green. Her father was a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization, and her mother worked most of her career as an elementary school teacher of English and math at the Beethoven School in Chicago. The family moved to Chicago, Illinois, when Jemison was three years old, to take advantage of better educational opportunities there. Jemison says that as a young girl growing up in Chicago she always assumed she would get into space. “I thought, by now, we’d be going into space like you were going to work.” She said it was easier to apply to be a shuttle astronaut, “rather than waiting around in a cornfield, waiting for ET to pick me up or something.”
As a child growing up, Jemison learned to make connections to science by studying nature. “It sounds a little gross, but I was fascinated with pus,” Jemison said. Once when a splinter infected her thumb as a little girl, Jemison’s mother turned it into a learning experience. She ended up doing a whole project about pus.Jemison wouldn’t let anyone dissuade her from pursuing a career in science. “In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist,” Jemison says. “She said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a nurse, but that’s not what I wanted to be.”
Jemison says she was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. but to her King’s dream wasn’t an elusive fantasy but a call to action. “Too often people paint him like Santa — smiley and inoffensive,” says Jemison. “But when I think of Martin Luther King Jr. I think of attitude, audacity, and bravery.” Jemison thinks the civil rights movement was all about breaking down the barriers to human potential. “The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up,” says Jemison.
Jemison loved science growing up but she also loved the arts. Jemison began dancing at the age of nine. “I love dancing! I took all kinds of dance — African dancing, ballet, jazz, modern — even Japanese dancing. I wanted to become a professional dancer,” said Jemison. During high school she auditioned for the leading role of “Maria” in West Side Story.She didn’t get the part but Jemison’s dancing skills did get her into the line up as a background dancer. “I had a problem with the singing but I danced and acted pretty well enough for them to choose me. I think that people sometimes limit themselves and so rob themselves of the opportunity to realise their dreams. For me, I love the sciences and I also love the arts,” says Jemison. “I saw the theatre as an outlet for this passion and so I decided to pursue this dream.” Later during her senior year in college, she was trying to decide whether to go to New York to medical school or become a professional dancer. Her mother told her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
Jemison graduated from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School in 1973 and entered Stanford University at age 16. “I was naive and stubborn enough that it didn’t faze me,” Jemison said. “It’s not until recently that I realized that 16 was particularly young or that there were even any issues associated with my parents having enough confidence in me to [allow me to] go that far away from home.” Jemison graduated from Stanford in 1977, receiving a B.S. in chemical engineering and fulfilling the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. Jemison said that majoring in engineering as a black woman was difficult because race is always an issue in the United States. “Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, “That’s a very astute observation.'” In an interview with the Des Moines Register in 2008 Jemison said that it was difficult to go to Stanford at 16, but thinks her youthful arrogance may have helped her. “I did have to say, ‘I’m going to do this and I don’t give a damn.'” She points out the unfairness of the necessity for women and minorities to have that attitude in some fields.
Jemison obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 from Cornell Medical College (now Weill Medical College of Cornell University) She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and later worked as a general practitioner. During medical school Jemison traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, to provide primary medical care to people living there. During her years at Cornell Medical College, Jemison took lessons in modern dance at the Alvin Ailey school. Jemison later built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.
After completing her medical internship, Jemison joined the staff of the Peace Corps and served as a Peace Corps Medical Officer from 1983 to 1985 responsible for the health of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Jemison’s work in the Peace Corps included supervising the pharmacy, laboratory, medical staff as well as providing medical care, writing self-care manuals, and developing and implementing guidelines for health and safety issues. Jemison also worked with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) helping with research for various vaccines.
Once while serving as a doctor for the Peace Corps, a volunteer got sick and another doctor was diagnosed with malaria. The volunteer got progressively worse and Jemison was sure it was meningitis with life-threatening complications that could not be treated in Sierra Leone. Jemison called for an Air Force hospital plane based in Germany for a military medical evacuation at a cost of $80,000. The embassy questioned whether Jemison had the authority to give such an order but she told them she didn’t need anyone’s permission for a medical decision. By the time the plane reached Germany with Jemison and the volunteer on board, she had been up with the patient for 56 hours. The patient survived.
While working in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, Jemison found a feline companion who would share her life for the next 15 years – a cat named “Sneeze and Fleas.” “He was white with touches of silver and gray, and used to sit at the table with me. When I first got him he was eating the local foods, which were spicy sauces and stews over rice,” Jemison said. “When I started working on the space mission, he lived with my parents in Chicago and was the one thing I really couldn’t wait to return to. When I think of home and what it means to me, I always think of Sneeze.”
After the flight of Sally Ride in 1983, Jemison felt the astronaut program had opened up and applied. Jemison’s inspiration for joining NASA was African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Jemsion was turned down on her first application to NASA, but in 1987 Jemison was accepted on her second application. “I got a call saying ‘Are you still interested?’ and I said ‘Yeah’,” says Jemison.
Her work with NASA before her shuttle launch included launch support activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and verification of Shuttle computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL).“I did things like help to support the launch of vehicles at Kennedy Space Center,” said Jemison. “I was in the first class of astronauts selected after the Challenger accident back in 1986, … [I] actually worked the launch of the first flight after the Challenger accident.
Jemison flew her only space mission from September 12 to 20, 1992 as a Mission Specialist on STS-47. “The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown,” said Jemison. “I was working on the middeck where there aren’t many windows, and as we passed over Chicago, the commander called me up to the flight deck. It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space,” Jemison added.
Because of her love of dance and as a salute to creativity, Jemison took a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company along with her on the flight. “Many people do not see a connection between science and dance,” says Jemison. “but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” Jemison also took several small art objects from West African countries to symbolize that space belongs to all nations. Also on this flight, according to Bessie Coleman biographer Doris L. Rich, Jemison also took into orbit a photo of Coleman—Coleman was the very first Afro-American woman to ever fly an airplane. (Coleman died after falling from her Curtiss Biplane in 1926.)
STS-47 was a cooperative mission between the United States and Japan that included 44 Japanese and United States life science and materials processing experiments. Jemison logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, 23 seconds in space.
Jemison resigned from NASA in March 1993. “I left NASA because I’m very interested in how social sciences interact with technologies,” says Jemison. “People always think of technology as something having silicon in it. But a pencil is technology. Any language is technology. Technology is a tool we use to accomplish a particular task and when one talks about appropriate technology in developing countries, appropriate may mean anything from fire to solar electricity.” Although Jemison’s departure from NASA was amicable, NASA was not thrilled to see her leave. “NASA had spent a lot of money training her; she also filled a niche, obviously, being a woman of color,” says Homer Hickam, a training manager for NASA’s space station efforts. In an interview with the Des Moines Register on October 16, 2008 Jemison said that she was not driven to be the “first black woman to go into space.” “I wouldn’t have cared less if 2,000 people had gone up before me … I would still have had my hand up, ‘I want to do this.'”
In 1993 Jemison started her own company, the Jemison Group that researches, markets, and develops science and technology for daily life. In 1993, Jemison also appeared on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. LeVar Burton found out, from a friend that Jemison was a big Star Trek fan and asked her if she’d be interested in being on the show, and she said, “Yeah!!” The result was an appearance as Lieutenant Palmer in the episode “Second Chances“. Jemison has the distinction of being the first real astronaut ever to appear on Star Trek.
In 1994, Jemison founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence and named the foundation in honor of her mother.“My parents were the best scientists I knew,” Jemison said, “because they were always asking questions.” One of the projects of Jemison’s foundation is The Earth We Share (TEWS), an international science camp where students, ages 12 to 16, work to solve current global problems, like “How Many People Can the Earth Hold” and “Predict the Hot Public Stocks of The Year 2030.” The four-week residential program helps students build critical thinking and problem solving skills through an experiential curriculum. Camps have been held at Dartmouth College, Colorado School of Mines, Choate Rosemary Hall and other sites around the United States. TEWS was introduced internationally to high school students in day programs in South Africa and Tunisia. In 1999, TEWS was expanded overseas to adults at the Zermatt Creativity and Leadership Symposium held in Switzerland.
In the spring of 1996, Jemison filed a complaint against a Texas police officer accusing him of police brutality during a traffic stop that ended in her arrest. She was pulled over by Nassau Bay, Texas officer Henry Hughes for allegedly making an illegal U-turn and arrested after Hughes learned of a warrant on Jemison for a speeding charge. In her complaint, Jemison said the officer physically and emotionally mistreated her and Jemison’s attorney said she was forced to the ground and handcuffed. Jemison said in a televised interview that the incident has altered her feelings about police there. “I always felt safe and comfortable [around the police]. I don’t feel that way anymore at Nassau Bay and that’s a shame,” she said.
In 1999, Jemison founded BioSentient Corp and has been working to develop a portable device that allows mobile monitoring of the involuntary nervous system. BioSentient has obtained the license to commercialize NASA’s space-age technology known as Autogenic Feedback Training Exercise (AFTE), a patented technique that uses biofeedback and autogenic therapy to allow patients to monitor and control their physiology as a possible treatment for anxiety and stress related disorders. “BioSentient is examining AFTE as a treatment for anxiety, nausea, migraine and tension headaches, chronic pain, hypertension and hypotension, and stress-related disorders,” says Jemison.
In 2006, Jemison participated in African American Lives, a PBS television miniseries hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that traced the family history of eight famous African Americans using historical research and genetic techniques. Jemison found to her surprise that she is 13% East Asian in her genetic makeup.
In 2007, diagnostic test provider Gen-Probe Inc. announced that they would not accept the resignation of Jemison from their Board of Directors. Jemison had failed to be re-elected to the board in a vote of the shareholders of the company at the company’s May 31 annual stockholders meeting. The company said it believes Jemison’s failed re-election was the result of a recommendation by advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services that shareholders vote against her due to her poor attendance at board meetings. Gen-Probe determined that Jemison’s two absences in 2006 were for valid reasons and said Jemison had attended all regular and special board and committee meetings since September.
On February 17, 2008 Jemison was the featured speaker for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Jemison paid tribute to Alpha Kappa Alpha by carrying the sorority’s banner with her on her shuttle flight. Jemison’s space suit is a part of the sorority’s national traveling Centennial Exhibit. Jemison is an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a sorority founded in 1908 at Howard University to address the social issues of the time and promote scholarship among black women.
The Des Moines Register interviewed Jemison on October 16, 2008 and reported that she has mixed feelings about the term “role model”. “Here’s the deal: Everybody’s a role model. … Role models can be good or bad, positive or negative.”
Jemison sometimes appears at charity events. In 2007, Jemison walked the runway, wearing Lyn Devon, at the Red Dress Heart Truth fashion show during Fashion Week in New York to help raise money to fight heart disease. Jemison is an active public speaker who appears before private and public groups promoting science and technology as well as providing an inspirational and educational message for young people. “Having been an astronaut gives me a platform,” says Jemison,”but I’d blow it if I just talked about the Shuttle. “Jemison uses her platform to speak out on the gap in the quality of health-care between the United States and the Third World. “Martin Luther King … didn’t just have a dream, he got things done.”
Jemison is a Professor-at-Large at Cornell University and was a professor of Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College from 1995 to 2002. Jemison continues to advocate strongly in favor of science education and getting minority students interested in science. She sees science and technology as being very much a part of society, and African-Americans as having been deeply involved in U.S. science and technology from the beginning.
Honors and awards
- 1988 Essence Science and Technology Award
- 1990 Gamma Sigma Gamma Woman of the Year
- 1991 McCall’s 10 Outstanding Women for the 90s
- 1991 Pumpkin Magazine’s (a Japanese Monthly) One of the Women for the Coming New Century
- 1992 Johnson Publications Black Achievement Trailblazers Award
- 1993 National Women’s Hall of Fame
- 1993 Ebony magazine 50 Most Influential women
- 1993 Kilby Science Award
- 1993 Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth
- 1993 People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful and sexy People in the World”
- 1993 Turner Trumpet Award
- 2002 listed among the 100 Greatest African Americans according to Molefi Kete Asante.
- 2003 Intrepid Award by the National Organization for girls
- 2004 International Space Hall of Fame
- 1992 Mae C. Jemison Science and Space Museum, Wilbur Wright College, Chicago, Illinois
- 1992 Mae C. Jemison Academy, an alternative public school in Detroit, Michigan
- 2001 Mae Jemison School, an elementary public school in Hazel Crest, Illinois
- Doctors honoris causa
- 1991 Doctor of Letters, Winston Salem College, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
- 1991 Doctor of Science, Lincoln College, Pennsylvania
- 2000 Doctor of Humanities, Princeton University 
- 2005 Doctor of Science, Wilson College
- 2006 Doctor of Science, Dartmouth College 
- 2007 Doctor of Engineering, Harvey Mudd College
- 2007 Doctor of Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
- 2008 Doctor of Humanities, DePaul University
- 2009 Doctor of Engineering, Polytechnic Institute of NYU