Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama, on October 17, 1956, the youngest child of Charlie Jemison and Dorothy Green. Her father was a maintenance supervisor for a charity organization, and her mother worked most of her career as an elementary school teacher of English and math at the Beethoven School in Chicago.
The family moved to Chicago, Illinois, when Jemison was three years old, to take advantage of the better educational and employment opportunities there. Jemison says that as a young girl growing up in Chicago she always assumed she would get into space. “I thought, by now, we’d be going into space like you were going to work.”She said it was easier to apply to be a shuttle astronaut, “rather than waiting around in a cornfield, waiting for ET to pick me up or something.”
In her childhood, Jemison learned to make connections to science by studying nature. Once when a splinter infected her thumb as a little girl, Jemison’s mother turned it into a learning experience. She ended up doing a whole project about pus. Jemison’s parents were very supportive of her interest in science, while her teachers were not. “In kindergarten, my teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told her a scientist,” Jemison says. “She said, ‘Don’t you mean a nurse?’ Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a nurse, but that’s not what I wanted to be.”In an interview with MAKERS.com, she further explains how her sheer interest in science was not accepted. “Growing up…I was just like every other kid. I loved space, stars and dinosaurs. I always knew I wanted to explore. At the time of the Apollo airing, everybody was thrilled about space, but I remember being irritated that there were no women astronauts. People tried to explain that to me, and I did not buy it.”
Jemison says she was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.; to her King’s dream was not an elusive fantasy but a call to action. “Too often people paint him like Santa — smiley and inoffensive,” says Jemison. “But when I think of Martin Luther King, I think of attitude, audacity, and bravery.” Jemison thinks the civil rights movement was all about breaking down the barriers to human potential. “The best way to make dreams come true is to wake up.”
Jemison began dancing at the age of 11. “I love dancing! I took all kinds of dance — African dancing, ballet, jazz, modern — even Japanese dancing. I wanted to become a professional dancer,” said Jemison. At the age of 14, she auditioned for the leading role of “Maria” in West Side Story. She did not get the part but Jemison’s dancing skills did get her into the line up as a background dancer. “I had a problem with the singing but I danced and acted pretty well enough for them to choose me. I think that people sometimes limit themselves and so rob themselves of the opportunity to realise their dreams. For me, I love the sciences and I also love the arts,” says Jemison. “I saw the theatre as an outlet for this passion and so I decided to pursue this dream.”Later during her senior year in college, she was trying to decide whether to go to New York to medical school or become a professional dancer. Her mother told her, “You can always dance if you’re a doctor, but you can’t doctor if you’re a dancer.”
Jemison graduated from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School in 1973 and entered Stanford University at the age of 16. “I was naive and stubborn enough that it didn’t faze me,” Jemison said. “It’s not until recently that I realized that 16 was particularly young or that there were even any issues associated with my parents having enough confidence in me to [allow me to] go that far away from home.” Jemison graduated from Stanford in 1977, receiving a B.S. in chemical engineering and fulfilling the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. She took initiative to get even further involved in the black community by serving as head of the Black Students Union during her college years. Jemison said that majoring in engineering as a black woman was difficult because race was always an issue in the United States. “Some professors would just pretend I wasn’t there. I would ask a question and a professor would act as if it was just so dumb, the dumbest question he had ever heard. Then, when a white guy would ask the same question, the professor would say, ‘That’s a very astute observation.'”In an interview with the Des Moines Register in 2008 Jemison said that it was difficult to go to Stanford at 16, but thinks her youthful arrogance may have helped her. “I did have to say, ‘I’m going to do this and I don’t give a crap (damn).'” She points out the unfairness of the necessity for women and minorities to have that attitude in some fields.
Jemison obtained her Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 at Cornell Medical College. She interned at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and later worked as a general practitioner. During medical school Jemison traveled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand, to provide primary medical care to people living there. During her years at Cornell Medical College, Jemison took lessons in modern dance at the Alvin Ailey school. Jemison later built a dance studio in her home and has choreographed and produced several shows of modern jazz and African dance.