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Scientist Al Chambles Explains Why Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett's Contribution to the Moderna Vaccine Matters in the Black Community

During the first half of the twentieth century, the only well-known African-American (AA) scientist who was applauded before generations of school children was Dr. George Washington Carver. It is very refreshing to witness the positive national and international recognition of the scientific work of other African-American scientists, including the recent recognition of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett (Dr. Kizzy), who helped develop the Moderna mRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody. As the historical scientific work of Dr. Carver made many generations of African Americans very proud, so it is with the recent scientific work of Dr. Kizzy, which is literally and figuratively “A shot in the arm of America.”

UNRECOGNIZED AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT

It is not clear why Dr. Carver captured the attention and imagination of America—even in the South—when the contributions of many others have gone unnoticed. Perhaps it was because his scientific discoveries in agriculture led to the widespread use of crop-rotation techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He is credited with saving the economy of the South. The fact that a former slave in the segregated South of the twentieth century was actually given worldwide credit for his work is both a blessing and a mystery. There were other African Americans who made significant scientific contributions but they were largely unknown and possibly not believed by the general population. Even slaves made significant scientific and technological contributions but definitive proof of most of them has generally been lost to history. It is reported that a smallpox vaccination procedure which saved the lives of millions was introduced to America by a slave named Onesimus during a 1721 smallpox outbreak in Boston, MA. Onesimus reportedly described the procedure to his slave owner and preacher, Cotton Mather, who shared it with others. Yet, his contribution toward eradicating this disease is largely unknown by the general public. The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) provides another example of how the hidden scientific contributions of African Americans were ignored. Fortunately, it became generally known after the movie "Hidden Figures" was widely shown and viewed. It was revealed that female NASA employees (Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson) dubbed "human computers" helped the United States excel in the space race, nevertheless, their critical contributions remain largely unacknowledged, not only outside NASA but also within it. 

UNTAPPED AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT

The yearnings of African Americans, especially the gifted, for a coherent scientific understanding of the perplexing world that their ancestors were brought to in chains and the obstacles they had to overcome in their quest have been overshadowed by their long and intense struggle for freedom. The number of African Americans who were just as gifted as Dr. Kizzy and Dr. Carver who lived in the United States between the early 1600s and the second half of the twentieth century must have been in the millions. It is unfortunate that such a multitude of the gifted were relegated to low educational levels, menial labor, and generally prevented from participating fully in American society. Also, it is equally regrettable that humanity was deprived of the tremendous contributions that they potentially could have made. A crude extrapolation based on the scientific discoveries made by one African-American man, Dr. Carver, in the 20th century and one made by one African-American woman, Dr. Kizzy, in the 21st century suggests what could have been if the talents of the multitudes of other gifted African Americans had been widely utilized.

Over 200 years of slavery and another 100 years of segregation and racial oppression made it necessary for African Americans to emphasize freedom above all else. As a result, African Americans have come to be viewed as being one dimensional—preoccupied with freedom and Civil Rights issues. Also, since African Americans were viewed as being less intelligent than white Americans, their struggles for knowledge and for a coherent scientific understanding of the physical world, which are important human dimensions, have been largely ignored, forgotten, or never even considered.

It was not until Affirmative Action initiatives in the mid-1960s that African-American scientists were slowly being employed in the South. Affirmative Action initiatives are a set of policies and practices within a government or organization seeking to increase the representation of particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed or nationality in areas in which they are underrepresented such as education and employment. There are numerous accounts of African Americans being denied scientific employment in the South during the earlier period. We will never know what they could potentially have discovered to make our lives better and the world a little safer. One potentially detrimental effect of such discrimination could have slowed the development of research leading to the development of the atomic bomb and thus allowing our enemies to be first to develop the powerful weapon.

The Manhattan Project was established by the U. S. Government in Oak Ridge, Tennessee principally to provide a larger nuclear reactor and plants that could produce enriched uranium for atomic bombs during World War II. However, bias kept African-American scientists out of Oak Ridge's atomic bomb work. About a dozen African-American scientists and technicians worked as researchers in New York and Chicago. But, they could not follow their fellow workers when larger facilities were needed and built by the Manhattan Project in a city that would come to be known as Oak Ridge, TN. Unfortunately, the "Solid South" bloc of Democrats in Congress insisted that the new city follow the Jim Crow segregation laws that persisted in the South during the 1940s. The effect of that level of discrimination will, perhaps, never be known.

CELEBRATING AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT

America has faced many challenges since its beginning—some were expected and others were entirely unforeseen. While the origin of the Covid-19 virus is still being debated, it struck America and the rest of the world as “a thief in the night” in 2019—in spite of planning and preparation for pandemics by the Obama administration. Covid-19 is a new strain of Coronavirus that had not been previously identified in humans. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are known to cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. 

It is inspiring to learn that Dr. Kizzy was given immediate credit for her scientific discoveries and to read in her biography about how her scientific curiosity was encouraged from an early age to pursue excellence in education—especially science education. That encouragement is obvious from her fourth grade teacher in the Oak Lane Elementary School in Hillsborough, NC, who recognized that she was gifted and encouraged her mother to enroll her in advance classes (1995) to her becoming a research fellow working as a viral immunologist at the National Institute of Health (2014), and now as a member of Harvard’s faculty (2021). While there must have been setbacks, heartaches, and disappointments in her life, it seems that she was encouraged, supported, and mentored throughout her life and career. With that encouragement, her life-long study and research prepared her to tackle the virus that struck America as “a thief in the night” in 2019. Her research resulted in her team developing the Moderna mRNA vaccine and the Eli Lilly therapeutic monoclonal antibody in record time—a shot in the arm for America and the rest of the world. 

Also, it is “a shot in the arm” of African Americans who are being infected and killed at a disproportionate rate across the country yet reluctant to take the vaccine. The knowledge that an African-American woman led in the development of the vaccine could have a powerful inducement for minorities and other ethnic groups to take the vaccine. Her scientific work coupled with her well-publicized voice encouraging people to take the vaccine could potentially help save millions of lives around the world. She is truly “a shot in the arm” of America and the world and “a shot in the psychic” of African American who have seen too few African Americans appropriately honored for their scientific discoveries. It is very refreshing to see her life, career, and discoveries shining as bright as the Noonday sun. I am reminded of James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing:

Out from a gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the bright gleam of our bright star is cast…

And W.E.B. DuBois:

“The Negro only wanted an opportunity to be a man [woman] and then he [she] would manifest his [her] ability to accomplish great things.”

VOICE OF AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT

But, there continues to be a snag in the willingness of African Americans to take the vaccine and Dr. Kizzy gladly answered another call for service. According to a November poll, only 55% of Black Americans said they would take a vaccine if it was proven safe and effective by official. Currently, African Americans’ COVID-19 vaccination rates are still lagging months into the nation’s campaign, while Hispanics are closing the gap and Native Americans show the highest rates overall.  

While there are numerous reasons given for the reluctance of African Americans to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, including access difficulties, the infamous Tuskegee Experiment which began in 1932 to study syphilis looms large. At that time, there was no known cure or treatment for the contagious venereal disease. Six hundred African-American men in Macon County, Alabama were enrolled in the project, whose purpose was to study the full progression of the disease. The men were enticed to enroll in the study by promising them free medical care.

However, penicillin became the recommended treatment, in many cases a cure, for syphilis in 1947— about 15 years into the study. Nevertheless, the men in the study were not told of this information nor given penicillin. The health workers monitored them but they were only given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements. They watched the men suffer brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones, and joints damage and eventual death. 

Dr. Kizzy has appeared on numerous programs encouraging African Americans to take the Covid-19 vaccine. It is believed that the continuing voice of Dr. Kizzy to encourage African Americans to take the Covid-19 vaccine is helping to remove some of the reluctance of African Americans to take the vaccine due to the negative stigma associated with the historically unethical treatment of African Americans and other ethnic groups by the medical establishment in America. She is committed to using science and her voice to improve people’s lives, especially for communities that have been denied full participation in American society—health, education, employment, etc.

ENCOURAGING AA SCIENTIFIC TALENT

Africans Americans have made substantial progress in mastering a wide range of careers and occupations—dominating sports, entertainment, and human services, etc. Nevertheless, African-Americans continue to lag behind their peers in studying and understanding basic science. Their proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has shown to be a very difficult frontier to penetrate. It is hoped that Dr. Kizzy’s well-publicized scientific accomplishments, her vibrant African-American role model status, and her powerful voice will help African Americans to penetrate yet another frontier. 

I am also hopeful that the widely publicized information honoring the life and accomplishments of Dr. Kizzy will give America insights into the hopes, dreams, and accomplishments of African Americans as they continue to seek full participation in American society and the vast untapped talent pool waiting to be encouraged and tapped; will foster a better understanding and appreciation of how African Americans have historically struggled to learn, live, survive, and thrive in America; inspire parents and teachers to encourage children to start studying science at a young age; and to inspire innovators in education, especially science education, to dedicate themselves to the difficult task of devising techniques to accelerate scientific literacy and academic excellence among all Americans—especially African Americans—to help create the next generation of talented scientists to follow in the footsteps of the marvelous Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. It is hoped that our combined efforts will result in “more life to all and no less to none.”

Learn more about Dr. Corbett in this feature.

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