Yesterday marked the 110th birthday of the first female Native American engineer, Mary G. Ross. 17 years ago, a tribute to Ross was created by sculptor Lawrence Kinney – it was unveiled on the Buffalo State campus on September 15, 2001. The work of art was the subject of a commission to pay tribute to Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. The sculpture, part of “Art Across Borders”, was sponsored by the Women’s Pavilion of Buffalo as a movement to recognize and celebrate minority and indigenous women of the last century. The title of the work, which still stands proud on the campus, is Mary G. Ross: Scientist, Engineer, Cherokee-American.
“I spent months researching Mary Ross’ life eventually to find that she was alive and working into her nineties,” says Kinney. “The more we spoke on the phone over the course of that spring and summer about her work on the space program, and her great great grandfather, Cherokee Indian Chief John Ross, the more inspired I was to create a sculpture that did her justice.”
To create the work of art, Kinney (Sculptures and Form) designed his own steam-bending equipment in order to produce the steam-bent, white-oak wood panels. The work of art is covered with words that denote the accomplishments made by Ross, one of which was working at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, where she used her impressive abilities in math to help develop fighter planes, including the P-28, which reached the sound barrier. Ross excelled beyond expectations at Lockheed, at a time when it was unheard of for a Native American woman to enter this sort of workforce, let alone make a significant mark upon the future of flight.
Ross was also heavily involved with developing the Polaris ballistic missile, and was integral in helping to establish criteria for the Agena rocket, which launched the US into the space age. She not only wrote the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. 3, her work was instrumental in the development of the Poseidon and Trident missiles.
After leaving Lockheed, Ross set out to advocate for engineering and mathematics opportunities for women and Native-Americans. Throughout her career, and long after, Ross was recognized with numerous awards and honors, including being memorialized in Buffalo, by Kinney, almost two decades ago.
Ross’s image was also depicted in a Google Doodle, along with her accomplishments.