How this Virginia woman helped lead the world in a new direction

How this Virginia woman helped lead the world in a new direction
Posted at 11:27 PM, Feb 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 09:58:11-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia-native Dr. Gladys West is one of many Black women whose contributions to science went unrecognized because of her race and gender.

A retired mathematician, Gladys is credited with being a part of the team whose work led to the development of the GPS.

How this Virginia woman helped lead the world to a new direction

"It's such a great legacy to look up to and to see her get honored for all of her work," Andre Jones, Gladys' grandson, said.

At 92, Gladys is no longer doing her interviews. However, her family and those who worked with her can speak to her legacy.

"This woman had so much knowledge and was just such a beautiful person," Marvin Jackson, Gladys' biographer, said.

Gladys Mae Brown was born in 1930 during the Great Depression in Dinwiddie County.

Her father was a tobacco farmer, and she and her siblings worked in the fields in the morning, went to school and then came back to work the fields in the evening.

From a young age, Gladys was determined that this would not be her position for the rest of her life.

How this Virginia woman helped lead the world to a new direction

"Her mother would talk to her about, you know, you're very smart. And you can do all kinds of things. You can do anything but you have to get an education," Jackson said.

Gladys was always number one in her classes and took her education seriously. In high school, she was valedictorian and earned a scholarship to present-day Virginia State University (VSU).

"One thing that she really taught me was that your education doesn't separate you from others, but it gives you a lot more opportunities," Jones said.

At VSU, Gladys would study mathematics, earning her degree in 1952. She went back to earn a master's degree in 1955 after teaching in segregated Virginia schools.

In 1956, she would get a call from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia. Jackson said that Gladys was skeptical and initially turned down the interview.

"They got back to her and said 'hey, come on anyway. We're gonna hire you because your qualifications are so good,'" Jackson said.

Gladys was only the fourth Black person to be hired there. The third Black person hired there was Ira West, the man who she would marry the following year.

How this Virginia woman helped lead the world in a new direction

Despite her success, there were certainly challenges along the way.

"People had funny ideas about her because it was their first time dealing with integration. But she said she had funny ideas about working with them because she had never worked with a white person before," Jackson said.

Gladys persevered, and it wasn't long before her work began to speak for itself.

"Once she got that opportunity on base, she kind of landed and expanded. She was always on the top teams, continued to get promoted numerous times," Jones said.

Gladys was admired for her ability to solve complex math equations by hand. She eventually began programming computers.

She went on to work on multiple high-level projects, including one called GEOSAT — which led to her laying the groundwork for the Global Positioning System, otherwise known as "GPS."

Jackson said that Gladys had no idea of the significance her work would play in something so transformative. She was simply doing her job and doing it well.

In 2018, she was honored by the Virginia legislature and also inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.

How this Virginia woman helped lead the world in a new direction

In 2021, she was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the Royal Academy of Engineering founded by the late Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh.

"She said it's better now than never. So she said, now that they're getting it right, some other women will get acknowledged too," Jackson said.

The mentality of no excuses and a strong work ethic are just a few things that Jones has inherited from his grandmother in addition to an incredible legacy.

"For my daughter, it's awesome to think that she'll be able to write papers about her great grandmother," Jones said. "I'll never forget where I've come from, and I can look back and see where she came from as well and see the fruits of her labor pay off."

Gladys and her husband still live in King George today.

While at Dahlgreen, Gladys earned another master's degree from Oklahoma State University. After she retired in 1998, in her seventies, she earned her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech.

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