Physicist, Mathematician, Scientist, Astronomer, Professor, Civil Servant.
Walter Samuel McAfee, an African American scientist, was associated with the world’s first lunar radar echo experiments. His high intellectual capacity and extraordinary mind propelled him to be the first African-American mathematician and physicist to calculate the speed of the moon in 1946. Georg C. Lichtenberg, a Physicist said that only extraordinary men create discoveries, which afterward appear so simple.
McAfee was born in Ore City, Texas on September 2, 1914. He had eight siblings; His parents Luther (a mechanic) and Susie McAfee (an educator) played a significant role in influencing his career choices in life. They moved to Marshal when McAfee was very young in age.
He joined a high school located in Marshall, which he completed in 1930. McAfee’s chemistry and physics teacher, Mr. Freeman significantly impacted his career choice.
McAfee attended Wiley College in Texas, where he attained his first degree in mathematics in 1934. In 1937, he graduated with a master’s degree in physics from Ohio State University.
McAfee earned the Rosenwald Fellowship to pursue his Ph.D. at Cornell University. Under Hans Bethe, he worked on nuclear collisions which earned him a Ph.D. in physics in 1949.
Working at a high school in Columbus as a science and mathematics teacher, McAfee met a French teacher, Viola Winston, in 1935. They got married in 1941 and moved to South Belmar, New Jersey. They had two daughters, Mercedes McAfee and M.A. Bera-Morris.
Upon graduation from college, McAfee worked as a teacher at a junior high school in Columbus, Ohio.
In 1942, he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories in New Jersey. His excellent math abilities opened a door for him to work on the space project.
McAfee returned to the Army after acquiring a doctoral degree in physics. For the rest of his career, he worked at the Fort Monmouth laboratory as a scientist for 42 years.
McAfee served as director of a NATO study on surveillance and target acquisition and a scientific advisor to the United States Arm Electronics Research and Development Command. He worked as a lecturer of natural sciences at Monmouth College from 1958 to 1975.
Walter S. McAfee worked for the U.S. Army’s Project Diana in 1946. He advanced the initial stages of lunar exploration. With his mathematical knowledge, he bounced a radar signal off the Moon, proving a space radio contact possibility.
Project Diana’s team comprised physicists and engineers involved in studying the relationship between the earth and the moon. McAfee determined the theoretical calculations of the moon by radar signal echoing. Those calculations included radar coverage patterns, cross-sections, and the distance of the moon. Project Diana was a success, courtesy of McAfee’s contribution. However, because of racial discrimination, his contributions did not receive acknowledgment until years later.
In 1958, Dr. McAfee received an honorary doctorate award in science from Monmouth University. The Stevens Institute of Technology gave him Steven’s Award in 1985. McAfee was awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship in Nuclear Physics, which enabled him to pursue radio astronomy at Harvard University. President Eisenhower presented this award to him at a White House ceremony.
Legacy and honors
McAfee received numerous awards and fellowships in honor of his exemplary work. He was inducted into the Science Hall of Fame by Wiley College.
The U.S. government set up the McAfee Center at Fort Monmouth in honor of Dr. Walter McAfee. This facility contains the Information and Intelligence Warfare Electronic Directorate of CECOM’s Research, Development, and Engineering.
The Dr. Walter S. McAfee 85HN Endowed Scholarship in Science provides a chance to develop diverse scientists and promote discoveries in New Jersey.
Dr. McAfee appears in “Who’s Who Black Americans,” “American Men and Women of Science,” and “Who’s Who in the East.”
Before he retired, McAfee contracted glaucoma and became blind. He suffered from cancer and on February 18, 1995, he died at his home in South Belmar, New Jersey.
McAfee was a renowned scientist and a champion in mathematics and science. He made substantial advancements in the study of nuclear weapon systems and satellite technology. The history of his influence as a scientist, an instructor, a researcher, and a pioneer in launching the space age lives on.
The Black Male Archives Team
- Astronomers of the African Diaspora: Walter McAfee
- The Legacy of Walter S. McAfee
- Walter Samuel McAfee (1914-1995)