Black History Month: Celebrating Black Excellence in STEM

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Black Excellence in STEM

There has always been Black excellence and talent in STEM, but progress in diversity and inclusion has been unsteady. Currently, Black people make up only 9 per cent of all STEM jobs.

Throughout February we’ll be sharing stories of Black excellence on our social media channels to spread awareness of the contributions Black women have made to STEM throughout history and today.

Dr. Sophia Bethena Jones

Jones was born in Ontario in 1857 to James Munroe Jones and Emily Frances Jones. Jones’ parents participated in the abolitionist movement in Canada; their activism was said to influence Jones’ desire to break barriers for women in the medical field.

Jones went to medical school at the University of Toronto but was denied access to full medical training. In response, she transferred to the University of Michigan, finishing in 1885 as the first Black woman to graduate from the school with a medical degree.

After graduating, Dr. Jones went on to teach medicine at Spelman College, where she was the first Black faculty member and founder of the nurses’ training program.

Dr. Jones carried on with her career at Wilberforce University where she worked as a resident physician. She also practiced medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Kansas City, Missouri.

After serving many years as a doctor, Dr. Jones retired and moved to Monrovia, California with her sister. On September 8, 1932, Dr. Jones passed away at 75 years old.

Professor Emerita Anna Jarvis

Jarvis began her medical career in Jamaica. She moved to Canada when her husband was accepted at the University of Toronto’s anesthesia program. While her initial applications for residency in Canada were unsuccessful, with persistence and willingness, she was able to fill in a vacancy in the pediatric training program. 

During her time in the program, Dr. Jarvis made significant and lasting contributions to the field of pediatric emergency medicine and established herself as an international authority on emergency health care for children.

When paramedic services were created in 1984, Jarvis was involved in establishing the medical services and first responders, teaching some of the first cohorts of paramedics.

Dr. Jarvis held various academic appointments at the University of Toronto and clinical positions at hospitals, and has received the Order of Ontario, among other various teaching awards. She continues to demonstrate her commitment to mentoring students.

Dr. June Marion James

Born in Trinidad & Tobago, Dr. June Marion James was the first Black woman admitted to the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Medicine. She earned Specialist Certificates in Pediatrics and Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology and was named a Fellow of both the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (Canada) and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Dr. James co-founded Manitoba’s Family Allergy College and served as a councillor and later, president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba. With over 20 boards and committees under her belt, she was also involved with organizations such as the Caribbean Canadian Association, the Winnipeg Foundation, United Way, the Congress of Black Women, and the Manitoba Museum. She was also instrumental in founding the Harambee Housing Co-op, which provides affordable social housing in Winnipeg.

She has received numerous awards, including the YMCAs Woman of the Year (1981), the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), the Order of Manitoba (2004), and the Volunteer Centre Award for Outstanding Community Leadership (2005).

Barbara Howard

Barbara Howard is believed to be the first Black female athlete to represent Canada in an international competition.

Born in Vancouver in 1920, Howard was the youngest of five children. Even as a young child, she was fast, winning racing competitions at her school. At only 17, she broke the British Empire record for the 100-yard dash, qualifying to represent Canada at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. 

At the Games, she finished sixth in the 100-yard race but won silver and bronze medals as part of the 440-yard and 660-yard relay teams. Howard never had the chance to compete in the Olympic Games, which were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War.

In 1941, she broke more records by becoming the first Black person to be hired by the Vancouver School Board. She had a 43-year career in education, including 14 years as a physical education teacher, before retiring in 1984.

Howard remained active into her 90s, working with other seniors — who were often younger — and immigrants through her Burnaby church and cheering for her beloved Vancouver Canucks. She was 96 when she died in 2017.

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