Aqua Celebrates Black History Month: Recognizing Black Scientists and Leaders Who Made a Splash


To honor Black History Month, we’d like to acknowledge a few of the many influential Black scientists, inventors, and leaders who have made a positive impact in the water or wastewater industry.

Benjamin Montgomery (1819-1877) – Inventor and Public Official

Benjamin Montgomery was born enslaved in Loudon County, Virginia. He worked as a mechanic and eventually as the business manager of his owner’s plantation. Accomplished and well-favored, he obtained a small library and learned to survey land. He used his skills to plan the construction and maintenance of local levees for flood protection, and assisted in the construction of large buildings on the plantation. In the late 1850s, Montgomery invented a steamboat propeller intended for shallow waters; the blades entered the water at an angle, making them much more efficient in shallow water. After the end of the Civil War, now a free man, he founded an African American community that lasted for about a decade before becoming the first black public official in Mississippi as a justice of the peace. Montgomery’s inventions, including the propeller, were displayed at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia, just a year before his death. Montgomery’s inventions were unearthed in the early 20th century, and he was finally given more widespread recognition for his ingenuity.

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Alice Augusta Ball (1892-1916) – Chemist, Researcher, and Instructor

Chemist Alice Augusta Ball is known for developing a successful treatment for Hansen’s Disease, also known as leprosy, a bacterial infection that can result in severe nerve damage. In 1915, Ball became the first woman to graduate from the College of Hawaii, and was the first African American researcher and instructor in the College of Hawaii’s Chemistry Department. At that time, chaulmoogra oil was the best known treatment for leprosy, but the oil lost efficacy when given as a topical or oral treatment. Ball isolated the compounds from the oil and chemically modified them to be water-soluble, so they could be easily absorbed by the human body. Ball’s injectable compound became the preferred treatment for leprosy until antimicrobial treatments were developed in the 1940s. 

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Lonnie Johnson – Inventor, Aerospace Engineer, and Researcher

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, Johnson worked for the U.S. Air Force before joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979. From 1979-1991, Johnson worked on a variety of projects, such as developing the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. An established inventor, Johnson created the Super Soaker toy in 1990 and tweaked the design in 1996 to launch toy projectiles, thus also inventing the Nerf gun. Johnson currently has two technology-development companies, Excellatron Solid State, which focuses on developing and producing solid state batteries, and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems (JEMS), which developed the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC). The JTEC system converts thermal energy into electrical energy by pushing hydrogen ions through two membranes.

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Catherine Flowers – Founder & CEO of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise

Catherine Coleman Flowers is an environmental activist and health researcher who shines a light on failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas, and how they contribute to health and socioeconomic disparities. As founder and CEO of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise (ACRE)—an organization working to fight poverty and provide water and sanitation equity—Flowers has worked tirelessly to address the persistent issue of substandard sewage systems in her home of Lowndes County, Alabama, that have disproportionately affected African Americans in the area. In 2020, she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow as an Environmental Health Advocate.

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