Diversity of thought has always been a cornerstone of science; however, diversity amongst scientists has often gone unnoticed. Martin Luther King’s birthday was just celebrated in remembrance of his leadership in the African American community. However, he is not the only pioneer who has brought about great and lasting change. Below are just two examples of the great scientists and innovators in the African American community who have graced the history of science for the betterment of mankind.
George Washington Carver: (1864-1943)
Agricultural Chemist and Innovator
On the epitaph on the grave of George Washington Carver it reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
Through his work as an agricultural chemist, Dr. George Washington Carver changed the agriculture of the South by discovering three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. From the peanut Dr. Carver created meal, instant and dry coffee, bleach, tar remover, wood filler, metal polish, paper, ink, shaving cream, rubbing oil, linoleum, synthetic rubber, and plastics. From the soybean he obtained flour, breakfast food, and milk. He also significantly boosted the agricultural economy by formulating the crop rotation method, which revolutionized agricultural practice. He educated the farmers to alternate the soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops such as peanuts, peas, soybeans, sweet potato, and pecans. He did not profit from these discoveries but freely gave them for the benefit of mankind, and it was said he turned down a $100,000 salary in order to continue his agricultural work. Rising from slavery in Diamond, Missouri, Doctor Carver struggled to gain an education and used it to give back to the land. Dr. Carver died in 1943 and was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute where he worked as the Director of Agriculture. On July 17, 1960 the George Washington Carver National Monument was dedicated at Dr. Carver’s birth site. This was the first U.S. federal monument dedicated to an African-American.
Matthew Alexander Henson (1866-1955)
“As I stood at the top of the world and thought of the hundreds of men who had lost their lives in the effort to reach it, I felt profoundly grateful that I, as the personal attendant of the commander, had the honor of representing my race in the historic achievement.”
Matthew Henson was the first man to reach the geographic North Pole with long time colleague and explorer Robert Peary. Henson was born of poor parents in Charles County, Maryland. His parents died at the age of twelve and he was then shipped off to be a cabin boy on a merchant ship. He educated himself on the sea and became a skilled navigator. Henson met Commander Robert Peary in 1888 and joined him on an expedition to Nicaragua. Peary was impressed with Henson’s seamanship and recruited him as a colleague. For years they made many trips together, including Arctic voyages in which Henson developed trading with the Eskimos by learning their language, building sleds and training dog teams. In 1909, Peary led his eighth attempt to reach the North Pole and selected Henson to be one of the team of six who would make the final run to the Pole. Peary became ill before reaching the summit and sent Henson ahead as a scout. Later, when measurements were taken, it was discovered that Henson, during his scouting had been the first mortal to walk on the top of the world. Although it was Peary who got most of the acclaim for the exploration, it was Henson who made the first historic steps. On November 28, 2000, the National Geographic Society recognized those steps and awarded the Hubbard Medal to Matthew A. Henson posthumously.
Cat Aboudara is the Special Projects Manager at California Academy of Sciences and works in the public programs division. The Academy is a wonderful fit for her because of her curiosity about the natural world and her experience in working with native California wildlife.
latitude: 37.769, longitude:-122.467