Plant Science

Remembering the legacies of three African-American botanists

Botany was once reserved for the wealthy, white, upper classes. In reality, botany could be considered one of the oldest branches of science. The relationship between humans and plants can be traced all the way back to early humanity. In every corner of the world, groups of people had a specialised herbalist, who would treat and cure a number of ailments with a myriad of plants. Botany is for everyone, that’s the message I want to portray throughout my blog.

A few weeks ago, I shared the speech I once gave at a diversity and inclusion event. I am, and always have been, committed to increasing representation in STEM. Inspired by the Black in Nature movement, I want to dedicate this week’s post to some amazing African-American people who achieved incredible things in the field of botany.

George Washington Carver

The first person I have to acknowledge, is the awe-inspiring, agricultural scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver. After becoming the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, Carver went on to revolutionise farming, improve conditions for poor farmers and promote environmentalism.

He’s most well known for revolutionising crop rotation. Recognising that the industrial farming of cotton was depleting soil richness, he encouraged farmers to grow nitrogen fixing crops, such as peanuts, to replenished the soil and increased cotton yields. He later became known as “The Peanut Man”, and wrote numerous books, including “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption“.

Born into slavery in 1864, Carver showed an aptitude for plant science early on and became known as “the plant doctor” to local farmers. He was often seen experimenting with a variety of natural pesticides, fungicides and soil conditions. He left farm life at the age of 11 to pursue education, funding himself by taking on domestic positions.

After years of hard work, rejections and push-back, he received a Bachelor’s degree in Botany, a Master’s degree in Agriculture and later became a professor at the Tuskegee Institute, where he researched and taught for 47 years. There’s much more to his story, and I cannot possibly do him justice in this piece. If you’d like to find out more, I’ll leave links to some great sources at the end of this post.

Marie Clark Taylor

Our next African-American botanist has an incredible legacy, that will have affected all of our school lives, but has been all but forgotten. Marie Clark Taylor was the first Woman to earn a PhD in botany from Fordham University, served in the Army Red Cross in New Guinea during World War II, and later went on to become the Head of the Botany Department at Howard University.

Taylor was greatly involved in the construction of the Howard University botanical greenhouse laboratory. After her death in 1990, to remember her contributions to Howard University, an auditorium was named in her honour. Taylor was also greatly involved in teaching. In fact, her dedication to teaching was so renowned, her students joked that she had deliberately planned the delivery of her child to be after the university final exams, so that it wouldn’t interfere.

Taylor took her love of teaching very seriously, and was invited to teach at a summer science series for the National Science Foundation. As part of the series, she encouraged teachers to include her inventive teaching methods, including using botanical materials during their lessons and light-microscopes to investigate living cells.

Her innovative teaching methods eventually reached the White House, where President Johnson asked Taylor to implement them nationally and internationally. So, if you had the benefit of using botanical material or light-microscopes in your lessons, you have Marie Clark Taylor to thank.

O’Neil Ray Collins

O’Neil Ray Collins left an incredible legacy and is internationally remembered as an expert in genetics, mycology and botany. Collins’ discovery of myxomycete mating types, as detailed in his PhD thesis, was a major discovery in both genetics and mycology. Myxomycete, otherwise known as slime mould, is a type of organism that can exist as single cells but group together to form a multicellular structure.

He moved between many universities, furthering his research. He became a professor at Wayne State University in 1963, Associate Dean at UC Berkeley in 1969, and chairman of the Department of Botany at UC Berkeley in 1974. With 75 papers to his name, Collins legacy in the world of genetics, mycology and botany is renowned.

Not only was he an incredible researcher, we was also actively involved in creating a space to encourage minority groups to attend and succeed at university. Having grown up in segregated Louisiana to cotton farmers, Collins understood the hardship of thriving in a majority white society.

During his time as Associate Dean at UC Berkeley, Collins was made chairman of the committee evaluating a new Ethnic Studies Program and oversaw the production of a Graduate Minority Program. Both would be crucial in encouraging minority race students to pursue university education and ensure their success.

Succeeding in academia as a black person is fraught with difficulty. Even the application process is against you, with universities being 21 times more likely to investigate your application for misinformation than your white counterparts. With less than 1% of professors in the UK being black, it can often be difficult for black students to find others to look up to to inspire them to pursue a career in academia.

It’s important that we not only recognise and call-out institutional racism within academia, but also celebrate black and minority people, and the valuable contributions they make. They act as a reminder of the incredible work that can be achieved by anyone, regardless of who they are or where they came from, and sometimes because of who they are, and where they’ve come from.


1 thought on “Remembering the legacies of three African-American botanists”

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