Dorothy Esteryne McFadden was born to William and Elizabeth (Wilburn) McFadden in Hope, Arkansas, on July 1, 1918. She was born the year before women won the right to vote, and she lived through the tough economic times of the Great Depression and the segregated South. Like most African Americans in the South at the time, Dorothy was poor with few educational opportunities.
Fortunately for Dorothy, the first elementary school for African Americans in Hope was established by Henry Clay Yerger in 1886. Teachers at Yerger’s school recognized Dorothy’s brilliance and encouraged her to graduate high school in 1934 at age fifteen. She entered Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N) in Pine Bluff the following fall, graduating with a B.S. in mathematics at nineteen years of age.
After graduation in 1938, Dorothy taught mathematics, English, and science at Newport (Jackson County) from 1938 to 1939 and then rural Jesup, Georgia, from 1939 to 1941. From 1941 to 1942, she taught at Ft. Valley, Georgia. In 1943, Dorothy earned her first master’s degree, an M.S. in mathematics, from Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), the first institution in the country to award graduate degrees to African Americans. Her thesis, “Some Projectile Transformations and Their Applications,” served as a prelude to her future work in aeronautics.
While Dorothy was finishing her master’s program at Atlanta University, as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s prohibition of racial discrimination in the national defense industry, Langley Labs, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics—later NASA) began hiring African-American female mathematicians. Hoover was one of the first of six African-American women hired as P-1 mathematicians at Langley, with a salary of $2,000 per year. She was immediately made one of three section supervisors. She worked at Langley from 1943 to 1952, during which time she achieved several firsts in the field of aeronautical research. Her graduate-level work helped set her apart from her peers, and she was exceptionally fluent in abstract mathematical concepts and complex equations. For that reason, her white female supervisor, Margery Hannah, channeled to Hoover the rigorous mathematical assignments. These assignments came to the group from R.T. Jones, engineer and chief of the Stability Analysis Division at Langley, who is arguably the preeminent aerodynamicist of the twentieth century. In 1946, Jones selected Hoover to be his personal mathematician. Hoover was the first of the Black human computers promoted to a line section, the Stability Analysis Section, and she thrived in this accomplished and highly competitive conclave.
In late 1946, Jones moved to the newly established Ames Laboratory in California, and Hoover began working for his successor, Frank S. Malvestuto Jr., a brilliant engineer and prolific researcher. Hoover was the primary mathematician for the Stability Analysis Section from 1946 to 1951. By 1951, she had earned the lofty title of Aeronautical Research Scientist, graded GS-9 in the government’s revamped rating system; the pay was nominally $5,400 per year. That same year, she was listed as co-author with Malvestuto on two significant research publications addressing “thin sweptback tapered wings” (or jet wings) on aircraft. Being listed as a co-author was a landmark accomplishment. She was the first African-American woman to be listed on a Langley engineering report; typically, only white male engineers were listed.
The contributions made by Hoover and Malvestuto had real-world applications in the development of the aeronautical industry in the United States and around the world. This wing design allowed for stable flight at higher and higher speeds (“if it is not stable, it does not fly”). Today, every cargo or commercial jet aircraft utilizes the thin, tapered jet wing, which has become the aeronautical industry standard. It also supports the U.S. Air Force’s long-range B-52 bomber, large C5 cargo plane, and AWACS, a converted Boeing 707.
In 1952, at what seemed the pinnacle of her career, Hoover took a four-year leave from the world of engineering to pursue her interests in theoretical mathematics. In 1954, as a single parent of two small children, she earned her second master’s degree, this one in physics, at the University of Arkansas (U.A.) in Fayetteville. A portion of her 1954 master’s thesis, “Estimates of Error in Numerical Integration,” was included in the Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science the following year.
Hoover was one of only fifteen African-American graduate students at U.A. at this time. She was the first African-American woman to earn a master’s in physics from U.A. and is believed to be the second African-American woman in the country to earn two technical master’s degrees. She also belonged to Pi Mu Epsilon and the physics honor society, Sigma Pi Sigma.
In 1954, Hoover was awarded a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship, a competitive grant aimed at candidates with “evidence of special ability” and “exceptional promise” who did not have “full opportunity to develop [their] talents because of arbitrary barriers, such as racial or cultural background or region of residence.” At this time, only three African-American women had earned Ph.D.’s in mathematics.
She then entered the Ph.D. program in mathematics at the University of Michigan, serving as a teaching fellow and instructor of “school algebra” and trigonometry. She completed the typical coursework during her first three semesters, taking algebra, analysis, geometry, and topology classes. She also passed language exams in French and German.
In 1956, Hoover returned to the Washington DC area, where she served in various government positions. From 1956 to 1959, she was a mathematician at the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, a collaborative effort between the U.S. Weather Bureau, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Navy, where meteorologists, mathematicians, and other scientists used atmospheric data to make real-time weather forecasts, a significant achievement at that time.
In 1959, she entered space research, working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where she was one of the few female mathematicians. After Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson released a report on minority employment in federal service, Hoover was promoted to G.S. grade 13 (one of the first African-American women to achieve this pay scale), making about $11,000 per year. While at Goddard, Hoover teamed up with Dr. Aaron Temkin, who later became one of NASA’s preeminent atomic physicists, to co-author a chapter titled “Nonseparable Theory of Electron-Hydrogen Scattering” for the 1963 book Methods in Computational Physics.
While continuing her mathematics research in Goddard’s Theoretical Division, Hoover began writing a book entitled “A Layman Looks with Love at Her Church, that chronicles the history of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.” This book allowed her to reflect on her childhood in Arkansas and the influence of her churchgoing parents. The preface was dated November 22, 1966, and the book was published in 1970, two years after she began working as an operations research analyst at the Defense Communications Agency (now the Defense Information System Agency), where she also served as a program officer. In 1968, she received her twenty-year federal service award. Dorothy McFadden Hoover died on February 7, 2000, in Washington DC.