Dr. Gladys West: You use her math
February 25, 2021
By Theron Hobbs, Jr. ©2021
The mathematical subjects of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division feel relevant to everyday life. However, the math subjects of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, or statistics don’t feel as relevant, if at all, to everyday life. Dr. Gladys West, the African-American woman who provided the data necessary for GPS (Global Positioning System), would probably beg to differ.
West, born Gladys Mae Brown in 1930, grew up in a rural Virginia community. She desired something more than what her community could provide, and she saw education as her ticket to new horizons. When Gladys graduated high school among the top of her class and started college at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University), she chose to major in the subject of mathematics despite it being a male dominant area.
Gladys graduated college in 1952 and before landing her government job she obtained a master’s degree in mathematics and did some teaching. In 1956, she started her career with United States Naval Weapons Laboratory in Dahlgren, Virginia, as one of only four Black employees there. Unbeknownst to her, this would be the place where she would meet her husband and her mathematics skills would change the world.
Ira West, one of the other four Black employees at the laboratory, had the honor of being married to Gladys in 1957. Mrs. West continued to excel in her work, partly out of a desire to be excellent and partly out of a desire to tear down harmful stereotypes about African-Americans. During her naval base career, she received her second master’s degree in addition to dealing with coding, computer programming, and satellite calculations. Her proficiency in satellites led to her being a project manager in 1978, and this project produced the first satellite to orbit the earth and designed to sense remotely the Earth’s oceans and their depths. This led to a satellite designed to sense the earth’s surface. The culmination of her satellite work produced the mathematical data which made possible accuracy for GPS and all map navigation applications on cellphones used today. In 1998, after 40 plus years of working at the naval base, Gladys retired, but she was still ambitious as she finished her PhD in public administration in 2000.
Mathematics is not a subject that intrigues everyone, but thankfully it was something that greatly intrigued Dr. Gladys West. This Black woman’s diligent work in mathematical research and calculations in the area of satellites is a great reason why more people don’t get lost, because her accuracy provided a way for GPS devices and map apps on cellphones to be accurate.
Happy Black History Month!
Theron Hobbs Jr. is a Christian minister and humanitarian. Hobbs has a Bachelor's in Communication, Sports Broadcasting Certificate, Pastoral Ministry Certificate, and Master's in Pastoral Ministry. He served as pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church on Puget Island from 2013-2017. He and his family live in Des Moines, Iowa, where he is a community school coordinator.