CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY: Black History in Science: Remembering Dr. George Carruthers

Dr. Carruthers receives the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from U.S. President Barack Obama on Feb. 1, 2013. / Department of the Navy’s Information Technology Magazine

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent

He built his first telescope at the age of 10, and by age 25, George Carruthers earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

Upon graduating from the University of Illinois, Dr. Carruthers started work at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

His telescope and image converter identified molecular hydrogen in space, and his ultraviolet spectrograph was used by the Apollo 16 crew in their flight to the moon.

“In March 1610, Galileo Galilei reported the first use of a telescope to view mountains and maria on the moon,” Dr. Carruthers wrote in 1972. Many reported that his project collaborator, Thornton Page, a White man, acknowledged Carruthers’ brilliance and allowed him to lead on the project.

After all, just three years earlier, Dr. Carruthers was awarded a patent for his groundbreaking “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially in Short Wave Lengths.”

Following that, the scientist’s UV telescope and image converter provided the first proof of molecular hydrogen in interstellar space.

His invention was used on Apr. 21, 1972, during the first lunar walk of the Apollo 16 mission.

It marked the first-time scientists examined the Earth’s atmosphere for concentrations of pollutants and see UV images of more than 550 stars, nebulae, and galaxies.

Dr. Carruthers earned NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for his work on the project.

“On Apr. 21, 1972, the Apollo 16 commander positioned a somewhat more complex optical instrument at the Earth from the moon and obtained several remarkable photographs showing atmospheric rather than surface features,” Dr. Carruthers wrote.

One of the first and few Black scientists of his time, Dr. Carruthers died on Dec. 26, 2020, in Washington. He was 81.

Born Oct. 1, 1939, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr. Carruthers had three siblings. His father, George Sr., was a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Air Corps. and reportedly encouraged his son’s interest in science.

According to his biography, the elder Carruthers died when Dr. Carruthers was just 12. After his death, the family moved to Chicago, where Dr. Carruthers’ mother, Sophia, went to work for the U.S. Postal Service.

But Dr. Carruthers continued pursuing his interest in science.

“As one of only a handful of African-Americans competing in Chicago’s high school science fairs, he won three awards, including first prize for a telescope that he designed and built,” his biographers wrote.

In 1957, Carruthers graduated from Chicago’s Englewood High School and entered the engineering program at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus.

While an undergraduate, Carruthers focused on aerospace engineering and astronomy.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1961, Carruthers remained at the University of Illinois, where he earned a master’s in nuclear engineering in 1962.

In 1964, he earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

In a 1992 interview with the American Institute of Physics, Dr. Carruthers was asked whether it takes anything different to get an African American student interested in science instead of a White child.

“One of the things that most people agree on is just giving them lectures is not really very effective. In other words, if you say that you are going to give a lecture on space science, that is too much like what they already get in school, so it is not going to make a lasting impression on them or necessarily attract them to the field,” Dr. Carruthers stated.

“So, what we have been trying to do is give them hands-on activities, use videos and demonstrations that get across information in a way that’s more like entertainment, because certainly students are interested in seeing science fiction movies on television, they like to see ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ So, what we’re trying to do is cast real science in a way that’s as attractive to them as science fiction is.”

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