• How a Pioneering Mathematician Held Her Family Together in the Wake of Her Husband’s Medical Emergency

    Katherine Johnson on the Diagnosis That Altered Family Life Forever

    Public school districts throughout the South were slow to respond to the Supreme Court’s 1954 mandate to desegragate schools, and some communities, such as Little Rock, Arkansas, resisted violently. In the coming years, Newport News would comply, and I would be faced with a personal decision about whether to allow my own children to become experiments in desegregation.

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    In the meantime, Jimmie and I had begun to feel that it was time to move out of our neighborhood. Newsome Park had been perfect for us when we first settled there. We enjoyed living so close to family and meeting new friends, and they all made us feel at home right away. I’d grown so close to Jimmie’s youngest sister, Pat, that people often thought the two of us were sisters.

    When she had her first child, I taught her how to sew so she could make her daughter’s clothes. I often took my sewing machine to her home, and we spent hours reading patterns, cutting out fabric, and taking turns at the machine. Every woman should know how to sew. It’s one of those old skills that is extremely handy and can save lots of money. I taught my daughters to sew at a very young age.

    My girls were at home in our neighborhood, too. But Newsome Park was never meant to be a permanent home for any of its residents. The huge development had been built as a temporary solution to the city’s housing crisis during the war, and every now and then city officials would talk about demolishing it. Such talk never ventured past words because the truth was that there still weren’t enough homes to meet the demand created by new families constantly flowing into the area.

    But Margaret and Eric had moved out already and built a beautiful new home in another Newport News community of Negro doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. Their subdivision abutted a whites-only golf course, and on Saturdays the Negro residents knew to stay away from the back windows because golf balls often crashed through their windowpanes. Many of Newsome Park’s entrepreneurs also began moving out. A plumber who had lived on our street built a brick home on the edge of Newsome Park, while another neighbor, a barber who was married to a hairdresser, also built a spacious new home in Hampton. After two years Jimmie and I were ready to own a home, too.

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    On weekends, Jimmie, the girls, and I sometimes rolled through Newport News and Hampton in our car to look at some of the smaller, middle-class subdivisions where Negro families were starting to move. We particularly liked a developing community on a U-shaped street named Mimosa Crescent in Hampton. It was a wooded area that had been mostly swamplands, but we saw potential.

    Our family physician, Dr. Alonzo W. Douglass, lived at the tip of one end of the U, with his house facing the adjoining street. Mimosa Crescent was mostly empty lots with a few brand-new ranch-style houses toward the front of each end of the street. The houses were affordable, and the opportunity to design our own home just the way we wanted and choose everything from the flooring to the ceiling light fixtures was beyond exciting.

    Jimmie and I dug into our savings and purchased a lot on Mimosa Crescent for $1,200—the equivalent of about $11,500 in today’s dollars. Our lot was at the base of the U, and two lots were vacant on each side of our property. We began dreaming about our new single-story, three-bedroom house with trees, grass, a backyard, and a patio. One of the girls’ school friends even gave us a tiny mimosa tree to plant in the yard later, when we began building. But my family’s bliss quickly began to fade when Jimmie got sick with debilitating headaches.

    Our doctor initially thought Jimmie again had contracted undulant fever, which he had suffered years earlier when we lived in Marion. But the pain and weakness didn’t go away. At one point the doctor suspected paint poisoning, since Jimmie enjoyed painting and often helped family and friends when they had a paint job to do. But finally, after months of back-and-forth trips to the doctor and various tests, we were given a diagnosis that would disrupt our world: Jimmie had a brain tumor. And worse, the tumor was in an odd position at the base of his skull. Because of the difficulty reaching it, an operation might be fatal.

    The words did not compute. Jimmie and I were a team. We had a dream house to build, three girls to raise, and a lifetime of graduations, weddings, grandchildren, and retirement travel ahead. Frantic questions began flying from my mouth: What did this mean? Was there another way to shrink the tumor? Where could we go to get him the best treatment? Who were the best doctors for this condition? Surely someone out there could help us. There must be another way to treat this thing. There had to be.

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    We had a dream house to build, three girls to raise, and a lifetime of graduations, weddings, grandchildren, and retirement travel ahead.

    We were referred to a white surgeon, Dr. Coppola, who specialized in brain procedures and was said to be the best in the business. This was happening so fast, and Jimmie and I worried that our health insurance might not be enough to cover the exorbitant extra costs of a specialist. But we would do whatever it took. Our family doctor reached out to Dr. Coppola, who asked if he could meet our family. We arranged for him to visit us at home.

    Dr. Coppola arrived on a Saturday afternoon in 1955. He was a smallish man, about five feet, nine inches tall with olive skin and dark hair. We were not accustomed to entertaining white people in our home, and wanted to make a good impression on him. I suppose we thought we had to persuade him to care enough to help my husband. So the girls and I dressed up in our Sunday best. I poured him some sweet tea and instructed Joylette, who had become quite accomplished on the piano, to play for him as we sat in the living room. Then I escorted Dr. Coppola to Jimmie, who was lightly asleep in our bedroom. Jimmie’s eyes blinked open as soon as I clicked on the bedside lamp, and I introduced him to Dr. Coppola. The surgeon asked Jimmie a battery of questions, examined him, and then walked with me back to the living room to talk. Jimmie’s condition indeed was serious, and he needed surgery, Dr. Coppola said.

    Okay, I told myself, there is hope.

    The surgery would be exploratory, and Dr. Coppola said he could make no promises about what he would find or whether he would be able to remove the tumor. This was an intricate procedure that would take about eight hours. Eight hours. I just let the words hang there for a moment and braced myself for a fight. I reminded myself: there is hope.

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    Then the financial reality occurred to me again, and I asked how we would be able to afford this. Dr. Coppola told me not to worry about the costs. He said he was impressed by our beautiful family and would help us. I will be forever grateful to that kind, generous man.

    The surgery was scheduled for a Monday in mid-June 1955. Jimmie and I didn’t want to worry the girls and decided not to tell them. As soon as school ended for the summer, my sister, Margaret, came to pick them up, and she brought them back to White Sulphur Springs to spend summer vacation with her and my parents. Jimmie’s parents traveled to Newport News to be with us for the surgery.

    Jimmie and I slept little the night before his operation but by morning we were calm and resolute. We prayed and drove with his parents just a few minutes away to Riverside Hospital in Newport News. Jimmie’s parents and I got to spend a few minutes with him before he was taken away, and we were ushered to a small room to begin the long wait. It was the longest wait of my life. The three of us chatted. We flipped through newspapers and magazines. We prayed quietly. We sat in silence. None of us had an appetite. None of us wanted to leave the room. Finally, eight hours later, Dr. Coppola returned to us. I jumped up, and my eyes asked the question.

    “The surgery went well,” Dr. Coppola said reassuringly.

    Relief washed over me. I asked to see my husband and followed a nurse to the intensive care unit. Jimmie was resting, and he looked so frail with bandages almost completely covering his head, and all kinds of tubes hooked to him. But he was alive, and I was hanging on to Dr. Coppola’s words that the surgery had gone well.

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    When I made it home, I called my parents right away to share the good news. The girls were listening in the background and must have picked up from Mamà’s questions that something was wrong. They took turns speaking to me, and each one demanded to know: What’s wrong? Where’s Daddy? What’s wrong with Daddy?

    There was no keeping it from them now. These were Jimmie’s girls, and they loved him fiercely, like I loved my own dad. People always say that there’s something special about the bond between a dad and his daughter. He’s the first man she loves. It was certainly true for me and my girls.

    Mamà told the girls about Jimmie’s surgery, and they were inconsolable. They were ages 14, 12, and 11 by then, and they wanted to come home right away. The next morning, my parents put them on a train headed to Newport News. We all were at home when Dr. Coppola called and said Jimmie was awake and that we could see him. The girls, Jimmie’s parents, and I hopped in the car and rushed to the hospital.

    To prepare the girls for what they would see, I told them that their dad was heavily bandaged and very weak but that he would get better. We made our way to the room. I whispered to Jimmie that his girls were there. He blinked a few times and opened his eyes. He seemed to try to focus as he squinted at the faces staring down at him. Then his whole face smiled. Excited to see his reaction to them, the girls instinctively started laughing, clapping, and kissing his face. Their grandparents and I joined in the impromptu celebration. Then a hoarse voice broke through the excited chatter:

    “Y’all are too loud, dammit!”

    The entire room froze. It was Jimmie, but it didn’t sound like him. In all of our years together, I’d rarely heard him utter a curse word. And for him to speak in such an irritated tone when he was so happy to see the girls told us he was in tremendous pain. From then on, sounds of almost any kind bothered him. The clanging from the shipyard across the street. The chatter of his three roommates and their families. The clinking of glass and food service trays in the hallway. No matter how softly we tried to speak when we visited, he winced with our words.

    Dr. Coppola was concerned about Jimmie’s sensitivity to noise and his susceptibility to infection in a room with multiple roommates. The doctor made a few calls and had Jimmie moved to Mary Immaculate, a Catholic hospital, where he was assigned a private room.

    No matter how softly we tried to speak when we visited, he winced with our words.

    According to the hospital’s rules, Kathy was too young to visit, but the nurses quickly recognized how important the girls’ visits were to Jimmie, and they always allowed his baby girl to slip into the room with her sisters. The nuns prayed with Jimmie, and they also joked with him as his fun-loving spirit slowly returned.

    By September 1955, Jimmie had recovered enough to return to Newsome Park. The girls and I were thrilled to have him home. His bandages were off, but the healed incision had left a zipper-like scar from the center of the back of his head to the base of his neck. Fortunately, Jimmie’s speech and ability to think had not been impaired, but during his hospital stay he had to learn how to walk again. He walked with a cane, and we kept the house as quiet as a library. The girls rarely invited friends over, but my co-worker Erma, who had become a good friend, became like another aunt to the girls. She occasionally picked them up and treated them to a small shopping trip, ice cream, or a movie. With Jimmie not working, our budget had become extremely tight, and many of the fun activities and extra expenses had been put on hold. Thank heaven for friends.

    On his best days, Jimmie mustered enough energy to take a walk outside. He got fully dressed in a jacket, dress pants, and tie and made the girls change from their shorts to something more decent to escort him down the block. He was such a proud man, and it made his day to talk to the neighbors and feel the fall breeze on his face. He even got strong enough to sit in the passenger seat and give instructions to Joylette when we took her out for driving lessons in our black 1949 Chevrolet with a stick shift on the steering wheel. Jimmie sometimes surprised me by standing at the stove to cook dinner, which was one of his favorite pastimes.

    In December 1955, the girls’ fellow orchestra members at George Washington Carver High School asked if they could dedicate their annual Christmas concert to Jimmie. He and I had been as active at the school as we could be, chaperoning classroom trips, attending football games, and checking with teachers frequently on our girls’ progress. I was honored to sit next to Jimmie on the front row in the center, and we beamed as our girls played in the orchestra—Joylette and Connie on the violin, and Kathy on the cello. Those were the most hopeful days, when I could see glimpses of the vibrant young man I’d married and believe that he would be that Jimmie again. But bad days would return. Days when he couldn’t will himself out of bed. Days when he seemed to have no more fight. Days when even breathing seemed to hurt.

    How does a wife process that information about the love of her life?

    With the support of family and friends, I managed to take care of Jimmie and the girls without missing a day of work. Then, in late spring 1956, Jimmie returned to White Sulphur Springs for a few weeks with my parents. Mamà, a natural caretaker, insisted on taking care of her son-in-law for a while so that I could rest. I’d tried hard to keep my family’s routines as normal as possible and had not realized that I needed the help.

    Jimmie, once a strong athlete and coach, felt guilty for having to rely completely on me and our family. He even wrote me a letter, apologizing for getting sick and for the stress his illness had caused our family. That’s the kind of man Jimmie was. He was the one who was suffering, yet he was apologizing to me.

    While he was away, Jimmie also had the chance to visit his family in Marion. Worried that his progress seemed slow, his parents arranged for him to see their doctor. The doctor ran a battery of tests and saw disturbing signs that the tumor was growing back. Jimmie returned home to Newport News, and his doctors verified the diagnosis. There was nothing more they could do. Jimmie was dying. By then it was the fall of 1956, and according to the doctors, Jimmie had just a few more months to live. How does a wife process that information about the love of her life? I was speechless. The girl with all the questions suddenly had none.


    my remarkable journey

    Excerpted from My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir. Used with the permission of the publisher, Amistad Press, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2021 by Katherine Johnson, Joylette Hylick, and Katherine Moore.

    Katherine Johnson, Joylette Hylick, and Katherine Moore
    Katherine Johnson, Joylette Hylick, and Katherine Moore
    Katherine Johnson, a 1937 West Virginia State University graduate, was an American mathematician whose calculations of orbital trajectories for NASA were critical to the success of U.S. spaceflights. During her thirty-five years at NASA and its predecessor, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations and helped pioneer the use of computers to perform the tasks. The space agency noted her "historical role as one of the first African-American women to work as a NASA scientist." In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Katherine the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The upcoming 2021 launch of a USAF Space Force GPS III Satellite has been named in her honor, and she has been awarded thirteen honorary doctorate degrees. Four major buildings, including two NASA facilities, have been named in her honor. She died in February 2020 at the age of 101.

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