On this day in medical history: Mae Jemison, physician pioneer

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published October 15, 2018

Key Takeaways

Doctor, engineer, astronaut, scientist, philanthropist, dancer, TV personality, inspiration for builders of tomorrow, and the first African American woman in space. The list of the accomplishments of Mae Jemison, MD, is wide-ranging and diverse.  

Born on October 17, 1956, in Decatur, AL, Jemison was the youngest of three children. When Jemison was 3 years old, her father moved the family to Chicago, IL, which she still considers her home town. Jemison credits her parents, Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Green, for fostering her inquisitive, scientific nature from very early on. Her love of science and the arts eventually shaped her career.

She graduated from high school in 1973, and at the age of 16, entered Stanford University, Stanford, CA, on a National Achievement Scholarship.

In college Jemison was involved in a wide range of extracurricular activities, including dance—which she avidly pursued since age 11—choreographing a musical/dance production and the African American community, where she ran the Black Students Union.

According to Jemison, majoring in engineering as an African American woman was not easy and she faced many difficult situations, but she graduated from Stanford in 1977 with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering and a bachelor of arts degree in African and Afro-American studies.

Jemison then decided to become a physician, and explained what influenced her in an interview with “Changing the face of Medicine”:

"...I got some of the best counseling advice I’ve ever gotten. I had an illness, and the MD told me: ‘You know, if you want to do biomedical engineering and you want to run your own projects, then it would be really great for you to have an MD. Because sometimes MDs are difficult to get along with if you don't have a medical degree.’”1

Dr. Jemison added: “Because while you're doing biomedical engineering, that is, designing things to work in the body, to monitor the body, replacement parts and things like that, it's important to understand what therapeutic environment they're going to operate in. That is, what is a patient like? How do people grow from day to day[?] You can't just build this little piece of equipment, and then not figure out whether it's going to be useful to a person. Will the person actually use it? How is it going to change their lifestyle? So being in medicine was going to be very important, so that's how I ended up going to medical school.”1

During medical school, Jemison volunteered in Cuba, Kenya, and a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, and continued her love of dance at the Alvin Ailey School of Dance, New York, NY. She obtained her MD in 1981 from Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell University, New York, NY.

After an internship at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, Los Angeles, CA, she joined the Peace Corps and served as a medical officer in Liberia and Sierra Leone (1983-1985) and worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researching vaccines. Upon returning to the United States, she worked as a general practitioner and attended graduate engineering classes.

In 1983, the flight of Sally Ride—first American woman in space—motivated Dr. Jemison to apply to NASA’s astronaut program. Her inspiration dated back to her childhood watching Nichelle Nichols portray Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. In 1987, after several setbacks including the space shuttle Challenger disaster, she was finally accepted into the astronaut program.

Dr. Jemison worked in launch support at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL, and with computer software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL).

She then became the first African American woman to go into space. From September 12-20, 1992, Dr. Jemison flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-47, the 50th shuttle mission. She logged 190 hours, 30 minutes, and 23 seconds in space. While there, Dr. Jemison conducted several research experiments, including two bone cell research studies, on herself and her six crew members.

She resigned from NASA in March 1993 to pursue other interests, eager to focus on how the social sciences interact with technology. She founded several companies, including the Jemison Group, with a goal of researching, marketing, and developing science and technology for everyday life.

Dr. Jemison is a professor-at-large at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. She holds nine honorary doctorates in science, engineering, letters, and the humanities, and is the current principal of the 100 Year Starship organization. In 1999, she founded BioSentient Corp., and is currently working on a portable device that allows for the mobile monitoring of the involuntary nervous system for patients with anxiety and stress-related disorders.

Additionally, she is still an active public speaker and has made several TV appearances, notably as Lieutenant Palmer on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation—the first real astronaut to appear on the series. Dr. Jemison has also hosted and technically consulted on the World of Wonder, a Discovery Channel science series.

In 2017, Lego featured a Women of NASA set, which included mini-figurines of astronauts Dr. Jemison and Dr. Sally Ride, computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, and astronomer Dr. Nancy Grace Roman.

Dr. Jemison did not allow obstacles that may have been put in her way to hinder her lengthy list of achievements.

“I think growing up in the United States, of course, a woman, a black person is discriminated against. You know, there is no way out of that. The issue is, is what do you do with the obstacles that people put in front of you[?] You can buy into them, or you can give the obstacles back to that person. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy, but you can go around and you can create another path sometimes. But if you focus in on only that obstacle, then it's very hard to move forward, because that's where your attention will be drawn.”1


  1. National Institutes of Health. Changing the face of medicine. Dr. Mae C. Jemison. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_168.html. Accessed October 10, 2018.

Mae C. Jemison, Biography. Biography.  https://www.biography.com/people/mae-c-jemison-9542378. Accessed October 10, 2018.

Mosher D. Lego is selling a ‘Women of NASA’ set featuring 4 female scientists, engineers, and astronauts. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/lego-women-nasa-scientists-astronauts-kit-2017-10. October 18, 2017. Accessed October 10, 2018.

NASA. Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Mae C. Jemison. https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/jemison-mc.html. Accessed October 12, 2018.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter