Katherine Johnson, NASA Mathematician Featured in 'Hidden Figures,' Dies at 101

Two years earlier, ruling in the civil-rights case Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, the United States Supreme Court held that where comparable graduate programs did not exist at black universities in Missouri, the state was obliged to admit black graduate students to its white state universities. In the wake of that decision, West Virginia’s governor, Homer Holt, chose to desegregate public graduate schools in his state.

Now married to James Francis Goble, a chemistry teacher, she entered West Virginia University in the summer of 1940, studying advanced mathematics.

“The greatest challenge she faced,” Ms. Shetterly wrote, “was finding a course that didn’t duplicate Dr. Claytor’s meticulous tutelage.”

But after that summer session, on discovering she was pregnant with her first child, she withdrew from the university. She returned with her husband to Marion and was occupied with marriage, motherhood and teaching for more than a decade.

Then, in 1952, Katherine Goble heard that Langley was hiring black women as mathematicians.

The oldest of NASA’s field centers, Langley had been established by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1917. In 1935, it began hiring white women with mathematics degrees to relieve its male engineers of the tedious work of crunching numbers by hand.

Within a decade, several hundred white women had been employed as computers there. Most, unlike the male scientists at the agency, were classified as subprofessionals, paid less than their male counterparts.

In June 1941, as the nation prepared for war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, barring racial discrimination in the defense industry. In 1943, with the wartime need for human computers greater than ever, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, as the research facility was then known, began advertising for black women trained in mathematics.