From astronauts to botanists to writers and activists Hispanic pioneers have left their indelible mark on history of every field of study. Their accomplishments are great and their stories are fascinating. As part of our Hispanic History Month series, we are highlighting some of these amazing individuals and their contributions. These stories are just a few examples of why diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are critical both in the classroom and in the workplace. We hope you find their stories both interesting and inspiring.
Bernardo Alberto Houssay (1887-1971) – Physiologist
Born in Argentina, Bernardo Alberto Houssay excelled in science and medicine from an early age. Entering pharmacy school at 14 years old, he quickly earned numerous awards and accolades in many fields of physiology. After losing his university post for his political views, Houssay went on to found the first school of medical research in Argentina. His groundbreaking research in endocrinology influenced our understanding of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes. In 1947, his research earned him a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, making him the first Argentine Nobel laureate. Learn more about Bernardo Alberto Houssay.
Jovita Idàr (1885-1946) – Writer, Educator, Activist
Jovita Idàr, a Mexican American born in 1885 in Laredo, Texas, made a profound impact through her roles as a writer, educator, activist, and suffragistShe initially pursued a career in teaching, only to witness firsthand the injustices and segregation faced by Mexican-American students. Realizing she couldn’t change the system from within, Idàr turned to activism and left the school system. She became a vocal proponent of revolution in Mexico and a staunch advocate for women’s rights and participation in politics. In 1911 she founded and led La Liga Feminil Mexicaista (The League of Mexican Women), an organization dedicated to educating Mexican-American students. During the Mexican revolution, Idàr spent time working with the La Cruz Blanca, an organization similar to the Red Cross, in Mexico. Later she went to work at her family’s newspaper, El Progreso. This independent paper was a prominent source of news and activism information for Mexican-American citizens. With the support of her father, Idàr wrote about racism against Mexican Americans and discrimination against women. Learn more about Jovita Idàr.
Ellen Ochoa (1958- Present) – Astronaut and Engineer
Second generation Mexican American Ellen Ochoa was a gifted student throughout her life. From music to math, she excelled in every discipline she pursued. After graduating from high school as class valedictorian, Ochoa planned to study engineering in college. Due to her gender, she was encouraged to study physics, instead. Though she excelled in physics, Ochoa went on to pursue a master’s in engineering despite the gender disparity in the field. During her master’s program, Ochoa worked closely with one of her professors who encouraged her to pursue further education. She went on to earn a PhD, concentrating on optics studies and earning three patents in the field. After seeing Sally Ride become the first American woman in space, Ochoa applied to the NASA training program in 1985. Despite her incredible mind and science knowledge, Ochoa was not selected for training at the time. She pursued a career in optics, eventually taking a position at NASA Ames Research Center in California. Once again, she excelled, quickly earning a promotion to Chief of the Intelligent Systems Technology Division.
In 1990, Ochoa was finally accepted into the year-long astronaut training program, where she learned about new areas of science as well as survival skills and underwent physical training to pursue her interest in becoming an astronaut. After completing her training, Ochoa continued to work in optics for NASA until 1993, when she was selected for her first NASA mission, becoming the first Latina in space. Ochoa went on to complete three more space missions and became the first Latinx and second women to serve as Director of the Johnson Space. Center. She left NASA in 2018 and currently serves as chair of the National Science Board. Learn more about Ellen Ochoa’s extraordinary life. ]
Sylvia Mendez (1936- Present) – American Civil Rights Activist
In 1940’s California, Hispanic students were segregated into “Mexican schools”. Sylvia Mendez personally experienced segregation, at the tender age of eight, when she was denied enrollment at a nearby public elementary school. Like other Hispanic children, Mendez and her siblings were forced to learn in subpar conditions at schools that were geared toward vocational (for boys) and domestic (for girls) studies. Her family took legal action, and that led to the end of legal segregation in California. It also created precedent for the Brown v. Board of Ed Supreme Court case, a major win in the American Civil Rights Movement. This early exposure had a significant impact on Mendez. After retiring from a career in nursing, she devoted her time to activism and spreading the story of the first anti-segregation court case, Mendez v. Westminster. In 2011, Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of her work in advocating for the rights of Mexican Americans. Read more about Sylvia Ochoa.
Carlos Juan Finlay (1833-1915) – Epidemiologist
Cuban born Epidemiologist Carlos Juan Finlay was a pioneer in the research of yellow fever. After studying [something] in France, Finlay wanted to study medicine in his birth country. He applied and but was denied admission to medical school in Havana, Cuba. As a consequence, Finlay studied medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Upon graduation, his mentor, name of person, gave him a rare and influential gift – a binocular microscope – that profoundly influenced Finlay’s future. Finlay returned to Cuba to practice medicine, using his new microscope to study epidemiology in his spare time. Finlay was particularly interested in yellow fever, a disease that was rampant in Cuba. When the U.S. National Health Board Yellow Fever Commission traveled to Cuba in 1879, Finlay was appointed to work with them. They shared their theories about yellow fever transmission and their slides from infected patients.
In 1881, Finlay publically theorized that a species of mosquito was responsible for the transmission of yellow fever, an idea that was initially ignored and even ridiculed. Not to be swayed by public opinion, Finlay spent the next 20 years trying to prove his thesis. In 1990, U.S. Army Yellow Fever Board proved Finlay’s theory. Finlay went on to serve as Chief Sanitary Officer of Cuba until retiring in 1909. His groundbreaking discovery has saved countless lives around the world and influences the field of epidemiology to this day. Read more about Carlos Juan Finlay.
Ynés Mexia(1870-1938) – Botanist
Though she didn’t begin her career as a botanist until the age of 55, Ynés Mexia was one of the most prolific plant collectors of her time. After moving to work on her father’s ranch as a young adult, Mexia spent 30 years in Mexico, eventually managing the business. Later, she moved to California and became interested in the environmentalism movement, joining the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League. Her experience led her to pursue a degree in botany from UC Berkeley at the age of 51. During her studies, she completed her first plant collecting trip. She would go on to spend 13 years traveling across North and South America collecting over 145,000 specimens and discovering a new genus that was named after her. She was an adventurous traveler, avid plant collector, and staunch advocate of indigenous rights, including the right to land. Read more about Ynés Mexia .
These extraordinary individuals were pioneers of their time and continue to inspire people the world over. Their contributions have saved lives, led to civil rights reform, and added immensely to the scientific and medical community. Learn more about these and other Hispanic American history makers at the links below.