Inventors and Pioneers
Their works have lived on and have shaped our quality of life
George Washington Carver
“The Wizard of Tuskegee”
Sunrise: 1864 – Sunset: 1943
George Washington Carver was born near Diamond Grove, Missouri (his exact birth date is not known). His parents were the slaves of Moses Carver – that is where he received the name, ‘Carver,’ and so too was he. He was orphaned a baby – his mother was kidnapped and his father died; he never saw his mother again. He was exchanged for a racehorse, and by thirteen, he was on his own. Because he was very sickly and suffered, as a child, from whooping cough, he worked in his master’s house rather than in the fields. He learned to read and write, and managed to obtain a high school education despite tremendous obstacles, and with persistence, he was admitted as the first Black student at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. From there he went on to Iowa State Agricultural College.
Young Carver showed a keen interest and a healthy attitude for growing things and for science, and he would often care for sick plants. Under his care, plants and flowers prospered, with seemingly little effort. He worked at various jobs to support himself and to pay for his education, and often experienced prejudice and hatred from Whites. In Iowa College, while he was the janitor, he earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894, and two years later, he earned his master’s degree from the same college. He would eventually become a faculty member at the same college.
His scholarship in agricultural sciences was so amazing and well known that Booker T. Washington offered him a position at the famous, yet fledging, Tuskegee Institute in 1896. He accepted and moved to Alabama. He became the director of its agricultural research facility, and persuaded many Southern farmers to plant peanuts, sweet potatoes, and other crops instead of cotton because cotton was eroding and destroying the soil. Back then, his approach to crop diversification and soil conversation was revolutionary and radical. He was one of the pioneers of the use of legumes to replace soil minerals depleted by the unchecked growing of cotton. When the Southern economy, “king cotton,” was challenged by the intervention of the boll weevil, Southerners and the representatives in Congress began to look at Carver’s discoveries as alternatives to the economic threat. He was summoned to Congress to report on his work. There he convinced skeptical congressmen that the South’s economy need not be held hostage to production of cotton. His agricultural discoveries and their techniques, particularly the improving the land and diversifying the foundations of the South’s economy were his major contribution and most impactful work.
He also made international news by making scouring powder from calcareous tripoli and siliceous tripoli. His research programs yielded 300 derivative from peanuts and about 118 from sweet potato. Carver even made synthetic marble from wood pulp.
It was his work in the field of science and agriculture that made him universally renown but he was also a painter and a musician. Tuskegee Institute installed the George Washington Carver Museum in his honor; it houses his plants, mineral and bird collections, the many products of his life’s work and discoveries, his paintings and research papers. On the campus, sits the George Washington Carver Foundation, a research center founded by Carver in 1940. A historical landmark was named on Route K-96 in Ness County, Kansas that was homesteaded by Carver. He received the NAACP Springarn Medal in 1923; a Liberty ship was named and a Polaris submarine were named for him; and there are over 20 schools all over the U. S. named in his honor. A three-cent stamp and a fifty-cent coin bear Carver’s head, and in 1990, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame.
Though he was an inventor, he never patented any of his work he did at the Tuskegee Institute. He never sought fame or fortune; he donated over $30,000 of his life savings to his foundation, and willed the rest of his financial belongings to the same organization for his work to be continued after his death. He died in his sleep in 1943 and was buried alongside another great Black American pioneer, Booker T. Washington.
Charles R. Drew
“The pioneer of blood plasma research”
Sunrise: June 03, 1904– Sunset: April 01, 1950
Charles Richard Drew, the foremost pioneer in blood plasma research, was born in Washington, D.C. His mother graduated from a teachers training school and his father did manual labor. He received his early education in public schools, including Dunbar High School where he won a scholarship to Amherst College. At Amherst, he was not only a good student but also a fine athlete attaining the posts of most valuable baseball player, the football halfback, and captain of the track team. He received his B.A. at Amherst and the Howard Hill Mossman trophy; the latter as the man who brought the most honor to the college over the four-year period. Had society not been so racist, Drew would have gone straight to medical school, but he had to take a detour as a basketball and football coach at Morgan College and supplement his income by working as a referee to be able to go to Mc Gill Medical University in Canada.
At Mc Gill, he was first in physiological anatomy, was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha fraternity and was awarded the Williams Prize, an enviable plum at the university. In 1933, he received a Master of Surgery degree making him a medical doctor, while at the same time he was still a track star. He left Canada to join the faculty at Howard University Medical School, the premier Black medical school at the time. Under a general education board fellowship, he went to Columbia Medical School in New York, where he began research on the properties of blood plasma. He discovered ways of preserving blood in blood banks specifically for transfusion; he studied the problems of fluid balance in surgery and surgical shock, and became an authority on blood plasma. His system became a model for blood banks throughout the world. In 1940, he published Banked Blood: a Study in Blood Preservation; Columbia University awarded him a Doctor of Science degree, the first to a Black man.
He set up the blood bank project to train staff to assist the American Red Cross in World War II and headed the “Blood for Britain” whereby he secured ampules of dried plasma for transfusion for soldiers – the quantity needed was not in existence, so Drew brought it into being.
Unheard of in scientific community was that all human blood was the same, at a time when legal segregation was rigid and Drew refused to suffer in silence. So, he returned to teaching at Howard Medical School and was always on the alert to obtain “residencies” for his ace students and to see them certified by the American Board of Surgery. As one senator put it, “the civil right to decent health will not be achieved until a man’s race, creed or color does not bar him … from serving on any hospital staff or from receiving care at any hospital.”
Dr. Charles Drew was one of the most note-worthy, medical scientists – Black or White – and his presence is felt at all levels today. In addition to the aforementioned, he interned and taught at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he eventually became the chief of staff. He was a resident at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital, the first director of the Red Cross Blood Bank in New York City and a fellow of the International College of Surgeons. He received the NAACP Springarn Medal, it highest award and an honorary degree from Virginia State College.
When the Mc Cone Commission published the post-unrest report in 1965, one of the predominant factors was the lack of medical and hospital facilities in the area. The Charles Drew Medical School is now an adjunct to King/Drew Hospital in South Los Angeles, California.
Drew died in an automobile accident in 1950 in North Carolina, very likely from the lack of blood and inattention due to racism.
Garrett Augustus Morgan
“The sewing machine and the traffic are but two of his inventions”
Sunrise: March 4, 1877 – Sunset August 27, 1963
Garrett A. Morgan was born in Paris, Kentucky, the son of former slaves. He spent his early childhood working on the family farm with his brothers and sisters, while attending the neighborhood school. He left Kentucky in his teenage years and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio seeking a better quality of life. Because he had to work while going to school, he was not able to complete his early education so as soon as he was able to, he hired a private tutor to help him improve his grammatical skills.
In 1895, Morgan moved to Cleveland and went to work as a sewing machine repairman for a clothing manufacturer. He was so successful at repairing the machines that his skills became legendary. He became the company’s traveling repairman.
In 1907, he opened his own repair shop and by 1909, it grew to include a tailor shop, both having 32 employees. The new company made hats, coats, dresses and an array of clothing items – all sewn with machine made by Morgan.
He then expanded into the newspaper business establishing the Cleveland Call. As a successful businessman, he bought a home and an automobile; the latter was a luxury item at that time. While he was driving – and he foresaw the automobile explosion – he envisioned the need for the traffic lights. This became one of his many patented inventions and one with which he is most famously associated. Morgan saw that the automobile was here to stay and that a system would be needed to control the coming influx of traffic. His traffic light wonder coincided with the advent of the automobile and the way that America began to move about the country. The traffic light was patented in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.
Morgan was really an ace inventor. He invented a zigzag stitching attachment for the sewing machine; the gas mask; and founded a company that made grooming products, such as hair dying ointments and the curved- tooth-pressing comb.
His next revolutionary invention was the gas mask in 1914. It became an overnight sensation when used it to rescue several workers who were trapped in a smoke-filled tunnel under Lake Erie. It was modified and then used during World War I to save literally thousands of life. He was sometimes invited to demonstrate how his inventions worked.
Though his inventions enjoyed national appeal, Morgan, the man, did not fare that well when those who praised his inventions learn that he was a Black man. When fire officials learned about the heroic use of his gas mask in saving the men trapped in the Lake Erie Tunnel, they placed dozens of orders, but most of the orders were cancelled when they learned that he was a Black man. He would eventually be awarded a citation by the U.S. Government for his traffic light invention shortly before his death in 1963. His inventions have left a lasting legacy on the way we travel on a daily basis since the automobile, which is an important part of life today is inseparable from the traffic light.