Many of our black scientists and inventors are hidden from history. We want to redress that.

Ernest Just was a pioneering African American scientist. He was an outstanding research biologist and was known as the “scientist’s scientist”.  He studied egg fertilisation and the structure of cells, mainly how a fetus develops and how an animal cell functions. His first two years at college were lonely and discouraging but he saw them through.  This Black boy from South Carolina made himself one of the greatest scientists in the early part of 20th century.

He was not interested in awards and praise.  He just wanted to get on with his work.  In 1914 he even tried to refuse a medal, but anyway he was given the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Springarn Medal. The first to receive the medal. 

Although he tried to stay away from the limelight, the news of his work spread all over the world. 

In all, he wrote two major books and over sixty scientific papers. His book, the Biology of the Cell Surface, which was used in many U.S. colleges and universities, represented his lifetime of research, and was published in 1939, just two years before he died. The other book Basic methods for experiments on eggs of marine animals, was the scientists handbook for experimentation.

In his early years, Just’s father died. He was brought by his mother Mary Matthews Just.

She worked in the phosphate mines [on James Island near Charleston] and according to Hutcheson, “negotiated a solid investment in one of the sought-after plots in the village in 1888.” In Kenneth R. Manning’s biography of Ernest Just, Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just, Manning uses Just’s letters as supporting evidence that the [all Black] town was named for Ernest’s mother, Mary. He writes: “she became a strong community leader, canvassing the inhabitants, mostly men, and persuading them to transform the settlement into a town. They called the town, Maryville, after its prime mover.”

Internet archive and Charleston Public Library

When he graduated from Dartmouth, Just faced the same problems all black college graduates of his time did: no matter how brilliant they were or how high their grades were, it was almost impossible for black people to become faculty members at white colleges or universities. Just took what seemed to be the best choice available to him and accepted a teaching position at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1907, Just first began teaching rhetoric and English, fields somewhat removed from his specialty. By 1909, however, he was teaching not only English but also Biology. 

In 1910, he was put in charge of a newly formed biology department by Howard’s president, Wilbur P. Thirkield and, in 1912, he became head of the new Department of Zoology, a position he held until his death in 1941. Not long after beginning his appointment at Howard, Just was introduced to Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago. Lillie, who was also director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, invited Just to spend the summer of 1909 as his research assistant at the MBL. During this time and later, Just’s experiments focused mainly on the eggs of marine invertebrates. He investigated the fertilization reaction and the breeding habits of species such as Platynereis megalops, Nereis limbata, and Arbacia punctulata. For the next 20 or so years, Just spent every summer but one at the MBL.

While at the MBL, Just learned to handle marine invertebrate eggs and embryos with skill and understanding, and soon his expertise was in great demand by both junior and senior researchers alike. In 1915, Just took a leave of absence from Howard to enroll in an advanced academic program at the University of Chicago. That same year, Just, who was gaining a national reputation as an outstanding young scientist, was the first recipient of the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, which he received on February 12, 1915. The medal recognized his scientific achievements and his “foremost service to his race.” 

He began his graduate training with coursework at the MBL: in 1909 and 1910 he took courses in invertebrate zoology and embryology, respectively, there. His coursework continued in-residence at the University of Chicago. His duties at Howard delayed the completion of his coursework and his receipt of the Ph.D. degree. However, in June 1916, Just received his degree in zoology, with a thesis on the mechanics of fertilization. Just thereby became one of only a handful of blacks who had gained the doctoral degree from a major university. By the time he received his doctorate from Chicago, he had already published several research articles, both as a single author and a co-author with Lillie. 

During his tenure at Woods Hole, Just rose from student apprentice to internationally respected scientist. A careful and meticulous experimentalist, he was regarded as “a genius in the design of experiments.” He had explored other areas including: experimental parthenogenesis, cell division, hydration, dehydration in cells, UV carcinogenic radiation on cells, and physiology of development.

Just, however, became frustrated because he could not obtain an appointment at a major American university. He wanted a position that would provide a steady income and allow him to spend more time with his research. Just’s scientific career involved a constant struggle for an opportunity for research, “the breath of his life”. He was condemned by racism to remain attached to Howard, an institution that could not give full opportunity to ambitions such as the ones Just had. 

In 1929, Just travelled to Naples, Italy, where he conducted experiments at the prestigious zoological station “Anton Dohrn”. Then, in 1930, he became the first American to be invited to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, Germany, where several Nobel Prize winners carried out research. Altogether from his first trip in 1929 to his last in 1938, Just made ten or more visits to Europe to pursue research. It was during this time, that Just co-authored on a research paper with a few other scientists, called, “General Cytology,” which Scientists treated him like a celebrity and encouraged him to extend his theory on the ectoplasm to other species. J

ust enjoyed working in Europe because he did not face as much discrimination there in comparison to the U.S. and when he did encounter racism, it invariably came from Americans. Beginning in 1933, when the Nazis began to take the control of the country, Just ceased his work in Germany. He later moved his European-based studies to Paris and to the marine laboratory at the French fishing village of Roscoff, located on the English channel.

Just authored two books, Basic Methods for Experiments on Eggs of Marine Animals (1939) and The Biology of the Cell Surface (1939), and he also published at least seventy papers in the areas of cytology, fertilization and early embryonic development. He discovered what is known as the fast block to polyspermy; he further elucidated the slow block, which had been discovered by Fol in the 1870s; and he showed that the adhesive properties of the cells of the early embryo are surface phenomena exquisitely dependent on developmental stage.

He believed that the conditions used for experiments in the laboratory should closely match those in nature; in this sense, he can be considered to have been an early ecological developmental biologist. His work on experimental parthenogenesis informed Johannes Holtfreter’s concept of “autoinduction” which, in turn, has broadly influenced modern evolutionary and developmental biology. His investigation of the movement of water into and out of living egg cells (all the while maintaining their full developmental potential) gave insights into internal cellular structure that is now being more fully elucidated using powerful biophysical tools and computational methods.

These experiments anticipated the non-invasive imaging of live cells that is being developed today. Although Just’s experimental work showed an important role for the cell surface and the layer below it, the “ectoplasm,” in development, it was largely and unfortunately ignored. This was true even with respect to scientists who emphasized the cell surface in their work. It was especially true of the Americans; with the Europeans, he fared somewhat better.

Ernest Just in Wikipedia

Sadly when the Nazis invaded France at the start of WWII, Ernest Just was interned and put into a prisoner of war camp. His second wife, Hedwig Schnetzler, negotiated his release and he returned to his home country of America. By that time he was already ill and he died on 27th October 1941. He was born on 14th August 1883.

Further reading

Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just is a biography of African-American biologist Ernest Everett Just, written in 1983 by Kenneth R. Manning, African American author who gained his PhD from Harvard University.

My Black History Dr. Ernest Everett Just

Gary Krenz in LSA Magazine cited Randall and Imes for publishing in 1919 a single work that ushered in a new field of research, “the study of molecular structure through the use of high-resolution infrared spectroscopy. Their work revealed for the first time the detailed spectra of simple-molecule gases, leading to important verification of the emerging quantum theory and providing, for the first time, an accurate measurement of the distances between atoms in a molecule.”

Letter from a Former Student of Bouchet – sent to Dr. Ronald E. Mickens, Associate Professor of Physics at Fisk University

Taken from the post in Black Past:

Elmer Samuel Imes (1883-1941)

Physicist Elmer S. Imes, an internationally recognized early authority on infrared spectroscopy, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 12, 1883, the son of Benjamin Imes, a minister, and the former Elizabeth Wallace, an ex-slave. Both of his parents were alumni of Oberlin College in Ohio and worked as missionaries in the South. Imes attended high school in Alabama and in 1903 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in general science from historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He remained in academe, teaching physics and mathematics at the Georgia Normal and Agricultural Institute in Albany, Georgia, (present-day Albany State University) and the Emerson Institute in Mobile, Alabama, both historically black schools of higher learning in the racially segregated South.

In 1910, Imes returned to Fisk to teach and earned his master’s degree there in science in 1915. With a strong inclination for research, he enrolled at the University of Michigan and, with the assistance of a University Fellowship, earned his doctorate in physics in 1918, only the second African American to do so since Edward Bouchetat Yale University in 1876. His dissertation, titled “Measurements on the Near-Infrared Absorption of Some Diatomic Gases,” was published in 1919 in the renowned Astrophysical Journal. That same year, Imes and his former academic mentor at Michigan, Harrison A. Randall, shook the scientific world with a co-authored paper in Physical Review, titled “The Fine Structure of the Near Infra-Red Absorption Bands of HCI, HBr, and HF.”  It elaborated on the journal article by offering the first confirmation of the distances between atoms in molecules, widening the breath of appropriate applications of quantum theory, and presented evidence of two chlorine isotopes—finding that would be repeated cited by scientists and soon contained in textbooks.

In 1919, Imes married the novelist Nella Larsen, one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, which prompted a change in his residence from Jersey City, New Jersey to New York City, New York to rub shoulders with Harlem’s intellectual elite, among them W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes. Despite his scientific achievements, Imes found it difficult to find employment in white-dominated schools and businesses, but he eventually landed researcher positions in the New Jersey-New York region at the Federal Engineers Development Corporation, the Burrows Magnetic Equipment Corporation, Everett Signal Supplies, and served as a consultant to Autoxygen, Incorporated. During his eight years of work in the corporate world between 1922 and 1930, Imes filed numerous patents, four of which were for instruments that gauged magnetic and electric properties.  Imes may have been better known and respected among European physicists who were unaware of his race than by white American physicists.

Imes returned to Fisk in 1930, this time to mentor black students who would succeed in obtaining graduate degrees at major universities and to become chairman of Fisk’s Department of Physics. Divorced from Nella Larsen in 1933 and later plagued by professional, financial, and health problems, he died from throat cancer in Memorial Hospital in New York City on September 11, 1941.

Read more about Elmer Samuel Imes

National Society of Black Physicists: Specifically, his (Elmer Imes’] work was one of the earliest applications of high resolution infrared spectroscopy and provided the first detailed spectra of molecules giving way to the study molecular structure through infrared spectroscopy. This work led to him being the first African-American to be published in a physics journal in the United States.

Physics Today – The life and work of Elmer Samuel Imes by Ronald E. Mickens 2018: Imes’s measurements provided accurate experimental proof that rotational energy was quantized, and he was quickly recognized as a major figure among the small group of researchers focused on spectroscopy. In 1974 Earle Plyler, a US physicist and pioneer in the fields of IR spectroscopy and molecular spectroscopy, wrote that:

“up until the work of Imes, there was doubt about the universal applicability of the quantum theory to radiation in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some held it was useful only for atomic spectra (electronic spectra); some held that it was applicable for all electromagnetic radiation…. Imes’s work formed a turning point in the scientific thinking, making it clear that quantum theory was not just a novelty, useful in limited fields of physics, but of widespread and general application.”

Letter From a Former Student of Bouchet: Appendix C Elmer Samuel Imes Scientist, Inventor, Teacher, Scholar: Elmer Samuel Imes was the first black scientist to make a significant contribution to physics. His work had a major impact on the understanding and interpretation of quantum phenomena during the period from 1919 to 1925. He also made contributions to physics instrumentation through his construction and improvements to infrared spectrometers. During his lifetime, his research was extensively quoted and referenced in leading scientific journals in the United States and Europe by physicists and chemists studying the properties and molecular spectra of diatomic molecules.

Elmer Imes – Wikipedia: Imes’ work provided an early verification of Quantum Theory. It became known in Europe as well as in the United States.

The work on crop rotation, soil improvement and the use of nitrogen-fixing plants carried out by George Washington Carver is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago when he did his research. He bucked the trend for huge mono-cropping soil-depleting plantations – cotton, tobacco, sugar. He did this in such a way that was to at first feed poor farmers and secondly to develop new products from nutrient-fixing plants that were initially deemed unprofitable. His focus was on the small farmers and he set up teaching and outreach programmes for them.

This video provides views from scientists about food security today referencing the work carried out by Carver:

George Washington Carver by the Science History Institute

In the post–Civil War South one man made it his mission to use agricultural chemistry and scientific methodology to improve the lives of impoverished farmers.

George Washington Carver (ca. 1864–1943) was born enslaved in Missouri at the time of the Civil War. His exact birth date and year are unknown, and reported dates range between 1860 and 1865. He was orphaned as an infant, and, with the war bringing an end to slavery, he grew up a free child, albeit on the farm of his mother’s former master, Moses Carver. The Carvers raised George and gave him their surname. Early on he developed a keen interest in plants, collecting specimens in the woods on the farm.
 

Education

At age 11, Carver left home to pursue an education in the nearby town of Neosho. He was taken in by an African American couple, Mariah and Andrew Watkins, for whom he did odd jobs while attending school for the first time. Disappointed in the school in Neosho, Carver eventually left for Kansas, where for several years he supported himself through a variety of occupations and added to his education in a piecemeal fashion. He eventually earned a high school diploma in his twenties, but he soon found that opportunities to attend college for young black men in Kansas were nonexistent. So in the late 1880s Carver relocated again, this time to Iowa, where he met the Milhollands, a white couple who encouraged him to enroll in college.

George Washington Carver seated (front row, center) on steps at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, with staff, ca. 1902.

George Washington Carver seated (front row, center) on steps at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, with staff, ca. 1902. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-05633/Frances Benjamin Johnston

Carver briefly attended Simpson College in Indianola, studying music and art. When a teacher there learned of his interest in botany, she encouraged him to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), dissuading him from his original dream of becoming an artist. Carver earned his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State in 1894 and a master’s in 1896. While there he demonstrated a talent for identifying and treating plant diseases.
 

Tuskegee

Around this time Booker T. Washington was looking to establish an agricultural department and research facility at his Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. Washington, the leading black statesman of the day, and two others had founded the institute in 1881 as a new vocational school for African Americans, and the institute had steadily grown. As Carver was the only African American in the nation with an advanced degree in scientific agriculture, Washington sought him out. Carver joined the faculty of Tuskegee in 1896 and stayed there the rest of his life. He was both a teacher and a prolific researcher, heading up the institute’s Agricultural Experiment Station.

George Washington Carver (second from right) with students in the chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1902.

George Washington Carver with students in the chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1902. Carver stands second from right, facing front (framed by the doorway). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ds-05586/Frances Benjamin Johnston

Crop Rotation

George Washington Carver standing in a field, probably at Tuskegee, holding a piece of soil, 1906.

George Washington Carver standing in a field, probably at Tuskegee, holding a piece of soil, 1906. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-114302/Frances Benjamin Johnston

Carver’s primary interest was in using chemistry and scientific methodology to improve the lives of impoverished farmers in southeastern Alabama. To that end he conducted soil studies to determine what crops would grow best in the region and found that the local soil was perfect for growing peanuts and sweet potatoes. He also taught farmers about fertilization and crop rotation as methods for increasing soil productivity. The primary crop in the South was cotton, which severely depleted soil nutrients, but by rotating crops—alternating cotton with soil-enriching crops like legumes and sweet potatoes—farmers could ultimately increase their cotton yield for a plot of land. And crop rotation was cheaper than commercial fertilization. But what to do with all the sweet potatoes and peanuts? At the time, not many people ate them, and there weren’t many other uses for these crops.
 

New Uses for “Undesirable” Crops

Carver went to work to invent new food, industrial, and commercial products—including flour, sugar, vinegar, cosmetic products, paint, and ink—from these “lowly” plants. From peanuts alone he developed hundreds of new products, thus creating a market for this inexpensive, soil-enriching legume. In 1921 Carver famously spoke before the House Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the nascent peanut industry to secure tariff protection and was thereafter known as the Peanut Man. When he first arrived at Tuskegee in 1896, the peanut was not even a recognized U.S. crop; by 1940 it had become one of the six leading crops in the nation and the second cash crop in the South (after cotton). Both peanuts and sweet potatoes were slowly incorporated into Southern cooking, and today the peanut especially is ubiquitous in the American diet.

Carver also developed traveling schools and other outreach programs to educate farmers. He published popular bulletins, distributed to farmers for free, that reported on his research at the Agricultural Experiment Station and its applications.
 

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute, 1906.

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute, 1906. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-J601-302/Frances Benjamin Johnston

Recognition

Through chemistry and conviction Carver revolutionized Southern agriculture and raised the standard of living of his fellow man. In addition to the popular honor of being one of the most recognized names in African American history, Carver received the 1923 Spingarn Medal and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The George Washington Carver National Monument was the first national monument dedicated to a black American and the first to a nonpresident.

The information contained in this biography was last updated on October 15, 2020. Information from Science History.

More information about George Washington Carver

​​​​​Black History Bootleg

The American Phytopathological Society – Contributions of Dr. George Washington Carver to Global Food Security: Historical Reflections of Dr. Carver’s Fungal Plant Disease Survey in the Southeastern United States: “The primary idea in all my works was to help the farmer and fill the poor man’s dinner pail … My idea is to help the man farthest down. This is why I have made every process just as simple as I could to put it within his reach.” — George Washington Carver, January 16, 1929

Black Past: At Tuskegee, Carver launched a campaign aimed at lifting black farmers out of the desperate poverty in which most of them lived. Though his campaign ultimately failed in its aim, Carver adapted what he had learned in Ames in such a way as to put the application of its principles within reach of impoverished tenant farmers. In so doing, he anticipated the rise of organic farming and the push for the application of “appropriate technology.” As part of his larger efforts, Carver undertook research on numerous southern crops hoping to find a plant that could undermine cotton’s stranglehold on the region. For a variety of reasons, it was his work with peanuts that catapulted him into the national limelight in the early 1920s. As an icon—the Peanut Man—he was embraced by myriad groups for disparate, sometimes antithetical, reasons.

My Black History: After a lifetime of achievements, recognitions and awards, Dr. Carver died in 1943, and is buried on the campus at Tuskegee. Upon his death, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent this message, “All mankind are the beneficiaries of his [George Washington Carver] discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere.”

Benjamin Banneker was an African-American farmer, self-taught mathematician, inventor, surveyor, astronomer and humanitarian. He was born in Maryland on 9th November 1731 and spent most of his life on the tobacco farm that was bequeathed to him. Sadly little is known about this remarkable man, remarkable because of what he achieved during the period in which he lived, in the western world, the Age of Enlightenment that included scientific discoveries.

The internet biographies have conflicting interpretations. For example, undisputedly he was of African descent but some biographies suggest that he also had Irish descent. The other is his role in the survey of the new capital of America, what was to become Washington DC.

Although he received little schooling, Banneker demonstrated exceptional scientific ability. In his early 20s he constructed a clock made almost entirely of wood, with all the internal gears carved by hand.

He built America’s first home-grown clock–out of wood

Banneker was 22 in 1753, writes PBS, and he’d “seen only two timepieces in his lifetime–a sundial and a pocket watch.” At the time, clocks weren’t common in the United States. Still, based on these two devices, PBS writes, “Banneker constructed a striking clock almost entirely out of wood, based on his own drawings and calculations. The clock continued to run until it was destroyed in a fire forty years later.”

Smithsonian Magazine Three Things to Know About Benjamin Banneker’s Pioneering Career by Kat Eschner November 9th 2017

A moveable timepiece was essential for surveying in the field, the measure of longitude and the study of the stars, astronomy. Looking at the history of timepieces, mass produced watches weren’t available until the 1800s. During the period in which Banneker lived, the race was on to find an accurate clock combined with a reference point to measure longitude. This was especially important when at sea, many lives and ships had been lost because capatains were unable to keep their precise location at sea. Banneker’s achievement was remarkable. See A Chronicle of Timekeeping below.

Thomas Jefferson appointed Banneker to the commission charged with planning the construction of Washington D.C. to work alongside Major Andrew Ellicott. He helped survey the site of the national capital between 1791 and 1793. This was despite his age and infirmities. The terrain around the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers were inhospitable.

Widely known as the compiler of The Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris, which was published annually from 1792 to 1802.

From the Smithonian BENJAMIN BANNEKER’S 1793 ALMANACK AND EPHEMERIS

Banneker spent many nights studying the stars and was able to predict a solar eclipse for April 14, 1789. Two leading astronomers disagreed with his calculations, but Banneker was right. In addition to listing holidays and eclipses, the almanacs provided weather and medical information, the hours of sunrise and sun set, and a tide table for Chesapeake Bay.

 In 1791 he sent the manuscript of his first almanac to revolutionary leader and future U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. With the manuscript, Banneker included a letter in which he protested against slavery and disputed Jefferson’s claim that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. On receiving the manuscript, Jefferson changed his opinion and sent a copy to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Abolitionists used the almanacs as evidence of the intellectual capabilities of blacks.

In addition to his work in mathematics and astronomy, Benjamin Banneker proposed that the U.S. government establish a Department of Peace. He also advocated free public education for all children and the elimination of the death penalty.  

Further Reading about Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum: “In 1985, the land [on which the park and museum are located] was rediscovered as Banneker’s farmstead. A non-profit, the Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, was founded and Baltimore County purchased the land with the goal to preserve it for the public. In 1998, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held for the newly built museum.”

Engineering Village: American Black History Month: Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) by Megan Stalnaker on 02/01/2016: Benjamin Banneker was also an advocate to eradicate slavery. In 1791, he boldly wrote to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, to scold him and others of hypocrisy in drafting the Declaration of Independence. He quoted Jefferson’s words stating that, “all men are created equal” saying, “in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” Banneker also demanded Jefferson and other Declaration of Independence participants to, “wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to” African Americans.

Black Past Benjamin Banneker: In 1788, George Ellicott, a keen amateur astronomer, lent Banneker books and instruments that enabled him to construct tables predicting the positions of the stars and future solar and lunar eclipses. Three years later, Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker to assist him in surveying the boundaries of the ten-mile square site of the future Federal capital of Washington, D.C.  In that year, too, Banneker won the backing of several Philadelphia, Pennsylvania supporters of the anti-slavery cause to print his work in the popular form of an almanac. Its 1792 publication, introduced by letters pointing out how Banneker’s accomplishments disproved the myth of Negro inferiority, was a considerable success and produced twenty-seven further editions of “Banneker’s Almanac” over the next five years.  Banneker sent a manuscript copy of his work to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson along with a plea against the continuance of black slavery and received a courteous, if evasive, reply. But Jefferson praised Banneker as “a very respectable mathematician” in forwarding the manuscript to the notice of the French Academy of Sciences.

A Chronicle of Timekeeping in Scientific America

Smithsonian Magazine Three Things to Know About Benjamin Banneker’s Pioneering Career by Kat Eschner November 9th 2017

Benjamin Banneker and the Survey of the District of Columbia, 1791 by Silvio A. Bedini: Confirmation of this appointment occurs in Jefferson’s letter relating to Banneker’s almanac, which he addressed to the Marquis de Condorcet in the following year, and in which he commented about Banneker (Letter from Thomas Jefferson – later President Thomas jefferson – to the Marquis de Condorcet dated August 31, The Jefferson-Coolidge Papers, Manuscript Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, 7S.I.38-43.) that:

I procured him [Banneker] to be employed under one of our chief directors [George Ellicott] in laying out the new Federal City [Washington DC] on the Patowmac. . . .

See also Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to Condorcet, 30 August 1791 the ‘negro’ in question is Benjamin Banneker

Famous Black Inventors: Like a lot of early inventors, Benjamin Banneker was primarily self-taught. The son of former slaves, Benjamin worked on the family tobacco farm and received some early education from a Quaker school. But most of his advanced knowledge came from reading, reading and more reading. At 15 he took over the farm and invented an irrigation system to control water flow to the crops from nearby springs. As a result of Banneker’s innovation, the farm flourished – even during droughts.

Reconstructing Molly Welsh: Race, Memory and the Story of Benjamin Banneker’s Grandmother – A Master’s Thesis Presented by Sandra Perot. Perot was of the firm belief that the Irish indentured labourer, Molly Welsh, was Benjamin Banneker’s grandmother. She says: Of the over one hundred biographies and stories about Benjamin Banneker that
have been published, only a handful can be said to be grounded in “reliable” sources
gathered from individuals who met or knew Banneker personally. These biographies
were authored by the Revolutionary War advocate James McHenry, and anti-slavery
advocates Susannah Mason, John Latrobe, Martha Tyson, and Tyson’s daughter, Anne
Kirk. Three of these authors met Banneker, and Tyson lived in the same small town as
him. Interest in Banneker did not wane as the nineteenth century came to a close.
Martha Tyson prepared two manuscripts on Benjamin Banneker.

Benjamin Banneker – Wikipedia

Benjamin Banneker: The Black Tobacco Farmer the Presidents Coundn’t Ignore – the White House Historical Association

‘You’re not British, you’re Black. And so I didn’t really fit into either camps (Nigeria and England). And space was that wonderful thing that transcended all of that because when you look at the earth from space, there are no countries, there are no boundaries, we’re just one people.”

Quote from interview with Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock below.

Most of us may have come into contact with Maggie Aderin-Pocock on the TV when she presented Sky at Night in 2014, Stargazing on CBeeBies, Out of this World on CBBC and other programs.

As a person, Margaret Ebunoluwa Aderin-Pocock is just awesome. Born in London on 9 March 1968 to Nigerian parents, she attended 13 schools and at one when she said she wanted to be an astronaut, she was advised instead to become a nurse. She went on to gain 4 A levels in maths, physics, chemistry and biology and went on to get her BSC in physics in 1990 and her PhD in mechanical engineering in 1994. Her PhD research:

Her research investigated the development of an ultra-thin film measurement system using spectroscopy and interferometry to the 2.5 nm level. This involved improving the optical performance and the mechanical design of the system, as well as the development of control and image processing software. Other techniques at the time could only operate to the micron level with much poorer resolution. This development work resulted in the instrument being sold by an Imperial College University spin-off company, (PCS Instruments).

Aderin-Pocock has worked on many projects in private industry, academia, and in government. From 1996 to 1999 she worked at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, a branch of the UK Ministry of Defence. Initially, she worked as a systems scientist on aircraft missile warning systems, and from 1997 to 1999 she was a project manager developing hand-held instruments to detect landmines. In 1999, Aderin-Pocock returned to Imperial College on a fellowship from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to work with the group developing a high-resolution spectrograph for the Gemini telescope in Chile. The telescope examines and analyses starlight to improve understanding of distant stars.

She was the lead scientist at Astrium, where she managed observation instruments on a satellite, measuring wind speeds to help the investigation of climate change. She is working on and managing the observation instruments for the Aeolus satellite, which will measure wind speeds to help the investigation of climate change. She is also a pioneering figure in communicating science to the public, specifically school children, and also runs her own company, Science Innovation Ltd, which engages children and adults all over the world with the wonders of space science.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock in Wikipedia

The way she tells stories about science and space are encapsulating, softly spoken, with humour, animating. She actively inspires young people into taking up careers in science, engineeering and reaching for the stars and becoming astronauts. She has reached 25,000 young people in inner city areas busting myths about careers, class and gender.

Her own story about her youth is just lovely. Wanting to see the stars:

“When I was young we were living in a council flat. We didn’t have much money [so] I saved up some money and I got a telescope,” she says as I glance enviously at the tripod. “But it was really not very good. It suffered from something called ‘chromatic aberration’ which means that as you look through it, the light coming through gets split up into different colours.” It was a disappointment to a youngster desperate to look beyond the glare of the capital and gaze into the depths of the night sky. But then she spotted an advert for telescope-making classes in Camden, north London. Turning up to investigate, she encountered a curious scene. “There were lots of middle-aged blokes – they had large slabs of glass and they were just grinding away,” she laughs. Bizarre or not, the following week she joined their ranks.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock: how a space-obsessed schoolgirl battled the odds to become a top scientist interview with Nicola Davis 21st September 2014 in the Observer

In her own words, in vitae: Realising the Potential of Researchers Maggie Aderin-Pocock says:

“My name is Doctor Maggie Aderin-Pocock and I am a space scientist and a science communicator. As a space scientist I actually build satellites that go up in space, and as a science communicator I like to try and translate some of the complexities of science into a simple format for everybody to understand.

“Someone, somewhere, will think we need a satellite to understand the universe to probe the Earth’s atmosphere or do something. At Astrium Limited what I do is, we take that requirement and we try and build instrumentation and a complete satellite system that will meet those requirements

“So my PhD was in mechanical engineering. But before that I did my degree which was in physics. And so that was quite an interesting hybrid for me ‘cause doing the physics and the mechanical engineering turned out to be a perfect marriage for making satellites in the future. I didn’t know it at the time but it worked out very well. So I sort of had an inkling that I’d quite like to go into industry ‘cause I liked to solve problems and actually take the physics and mechanical engineering that I’d learnt and put them onto a variety of different problems. But when I actually left university I wasn’t actually sure where I was going to go, and also jobs were very scarce at the time, but I actually found a job with a branch of the Ministry of Defence, The Defence Evaluation Research Council, and was doing and making instrumentation for them. The first sort of instrumentation I was working on was something called a missile warning system. This was a quite a complex piece of equipment, but what it was designed to do was warn pilots when a missile was coming and then automatically let off flares to protect the pilot and the aircraft.

“So I did that for a number of years, travelled around the world, went out to Australia and to Rumora and did tests out there, as well as Appendine Sands in Wales. Then I actively got a promotion and I changed to working in landmine detection. That was my first management role and I was managing a handheld landmine detection group. From there I actually actively decided that I’d come back to academia. Because my dream had always been to sort of work in space and astronomy, and as a child my very first instrument that I made was my own telescope.

“So an opportunity came up to work on the Gemini telescope in South America, and this is an eight metre telescope, and I did that role at UCL, the University College London, and we were building an instrument that bolted onto the telescope. So we spent sort of two and half years building an instrument in UCL in the basement. And then it was a fantastic day when we packed it all up and shipped it out to Chile. And I spent about six months working in South America. And then I got to my dream of actually working in space science and that’s why I transferred from actually making ground-based space telescopes to space-based telescopes and space based instrumentation.

“Because I think, for me, it took me a while to realise the call for my PhD wasn’t just the technical knowledge that I picked up but it was also the transferable skills which you don’t really see at the time. But it’s things like problem-solving, taking on a challenge, getting it down to sort of the nitty gritty and working out a step-by-step method of solving a problem. To me, space was the ultimate goal, and I think it was sort of a subconscious for a long time but I could see I had that sort of goal in mind, so when I took on jobs, it was also, well you know can they lead me to space or will it go a different way? And you know it didn’t matter that I did lots of different things along the way, ‘cause I think often that helps. But that was I think, my goal.

“Because I’ve had a sort of quite hybrid career there are benefits in working in academia and pitfalls and the same in industry. But I think I’ve gone, I’ve done it sort of in a strange way where I am doing both now.

“And sort of trying to get the benefits of both aspects and trying to minimise the detriments, and it’s not something that people often consider but there are some good benefits in doing both. Sometimes that means you don’t know what hat you are wearing on what day, but there are synergies between the two. Someone once told me that you don’t actually, that for the time, extra time you spend in university doing a PhD you don’t actually get the money back until you are 40, but I think you can actually get it back sooner than that.”

Like many people Aderin-Pocock has dyslexia, if this is not picked up at school many young peoples life chances are just thwarted. Looking at dyslexia differently, as visual thinkers, people who think outside the box of the linear as in lines of text – creative people. Maggie Aderin-Pocock joins a long list of inspiring people who also have dyslexia: the boxer Muhammad Ali; another famous scientist Albert Einstein; actress Whoopi Goldberg; British writer and dub poet Benjamin Zephania; British racing driver Lewis Hamilton; the illustrator Jerry Pinkney; the rapper M.I.A….the list is endless.

As Aderin-Pocock says:

“We’re not teaching kids to think, we’re teaching kids to pass exams.”

Quote taken from: Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE – Made By Dyslexia Interview

More about Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Commissioner – Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

Maggie Aderin-Pocock: how a space-obsessed schoolgirl battled the odds to become a top scientist interview with Nicola Davis 21st September 2014 in the Observer

Maggie Aderin-Pocock in vitae: Realising the Potential of Researchers

Wikipedia Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Listen on BBC Sounds Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock talks to Jim Al-Khalili on The Life Scientific

In 1825, Charles Darwin mentioned in a letter to his sister that he was taking lessons in taxidermy from:

…. a negro [who] lived in Edinburgh”.

John Edmonstone, who had been enslaved and was from Demerara (in present day Guyana), is the man who taught this skill to the then Edinburgh University student. As with many other great scientists, Darwin was inspired by some people whose contribution has been overlooked and uncredited. Edmonstone is one such individual, almost lost to history, but who was hugely influential on Darwin’s thinking.

There are only small clues as to how he taught one of the greatest figures in the history of science a skill that played no small part in his thinking about how life developed over time.

Little is known of Edmonstone’s early life, except that he was born in the second half of the 1700s. The Edinburgh Post Office directory for 1824/5 records him as living at 37 Lothian Street. He earned his living stuffing birds at the National Museum and teaching taxidermy to students.

Darwin, who paid Edmonstone one guinea per lesson in bird taxidermy, also had hours of conversations with him about his homeland and its tropical rainforests, plants and animals.

It fired Darwin’s imagination and his interest in tropical regions. In this piece below written by James McNish we get an insight into this man’s life and influence:

John Edmonstone: The man who taught Darwin taxidermy

By James McNish

John Edmonstone was a former enslaved man who taught the young Charles Darwin the skill of taxidermy. This skill helped Darwin preserve the birds that fermented his ideas about evolution.

Many Black people’s contributions to science are hidden from history and we have to reconstruct their stories from the margins of more famous naturalists’ lives.

One such intriguing figure is John Edmonstone. A former enslaved person from Guyana, John was living in Edinburgh when he met a young Charles Darwin and taught him the skill of taxidermy. This was fundamental to Darwin’s ability to preserve the specimens he collected on his five-year voyage on the Beagle.

Though we only have scant details on Edmonstone’s life, what we know reveals that he was a talented and respected taxidermist and naturalist.

Edmonstone in Guyana

John Edmonstone was enslaved on a timber plantation in Demerara (now part of Guyana), South America, owned by Scotsman Charles Edmonstone (hence John’s surname – his birth name remains unknown).

The eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton NOTE: Waterton’s family also enslaved people visited Charles Edmonstone’s plantations a number of times on his travels through Guyana.

Waterton had developed new methods to preserve bird skins, which he taught to John, who accompanied him on some collecting expeditions. Despite Waterton believing that John ‘had poor abilities, and it required much time and patience to drive anything into him’, Darwin’s later recollections of John’s skill seems to contradict this assessment.

Edmonstone in Scotland

Plantation owner Charles Edmonstone returned to Scotland in 1817 and John came with him. Although we don’t know if John was already free when he arrived, he would have become a free man on entering Scotland. Owning slaves was banned in Scotland in 1778 following the case of James Knight.

At first, John lived in Glasgow. By 1824 he was in Edinburgh, making a living for himself working for the University of Edinburgh’s zoological museum and living at 37 Lothian Street.

Edmonstone and Darwin

Darwin went to Edinburgh in 1825 when he was 16 to study medicine, but he didn’t really enjoy the subject and only stayed for two years. While there, he did grow his interest in natural history, attending talks and undertaking his own investigations.

Darwin’s lodgings were at 11 Lothian Street, near Edmonstone’s. Darwin hired Edmonstone to give him private lessons. Though in a letter to his sister it seems price was the main initial motivator: ‘I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor I believe an old servant of Dr Duncan: it has the recommendation of cheapness, if it has nothing else’, Darwin later mentioned in his autobiography:

A negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Waterton, and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently: he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.

Edmonstone charged Darwin one guinea for an hour every day for two months. As well as the time spent on instruction, the two must have conversed on the natural history Edmonstone knew first-hand from South America.

Thanks to Edmonstone’s teachings, Darwin’s preservation skills were put to great use during his voyage on the Beagle (1831-1836). Of the many specimens Darwin collected, almost 500 were bird skins. The Museum holds nearly 200 of these.

Perhaps the most scientifically evocative of the skins are the mockingbirds collected in the Galapagos Islands. It was the Galapagos mockingbirds, rather than the better known finches, that helped precipitate Darwin’s thoughts on evolution

We can’t be sure that Darwin himself prepared all the bird skins, since specimen preparation was something that was carried out collectively on the Beagle. However, the skills that Darwin learnt from Edmonstone would have been passed down to his assistants.

A life in the margins

There are scant details of Edmonstone’s later life. We know he was still living in Edinburgh in 1833 and had moved to 6 South St David Street.

We can only speculate as to the effect his story had on the young Darwin. His accounts of South America must certainly have been inspiring to Darwin. Did Edmonstone help form Darwin’s abolitionist viewpoint? We know from his journals from the Beagle that Darwin noticed cruel acts during the voyage which he found repugnant.

n 2009, a plaque was unveiled in his memory on Lothian Street, although it has since disappeared. But awareness of Edmonstone has grown in recent years and we can hope that his story, and that of other Black people contributing to the study of natural history, continues to be told.

Gladys Mae West (born 1930) is an American mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the earth and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS). West was inducted into the United States Airforce Hall of Fame in 2018.

Dr. Gladys Mae West (born 1930) is a mathematician known for her contributions to the mathematical modelling of the shape of the Earth, and it wasn’t until 2018 that she would finally be recognised for her very important work that led to the development of one of the most necessary tools we use in our everyday lives — the GPS.

Hired at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in Dahlgren, Virginia in 1956, Dr. Gladys West was only one of four Black employees, and the second Black woman ever hired. West worked as a programmer and analysed satellite data. She was able to use satellite data to put together altimeter models of the Earth’s shape with extreme precision. She was then recommended to work as the project manager for the SeaSat radar altimetry project, the first satellite that could remotely sense oceans.

Through the mid-70s and 80s, Dr. West programmed an IBM computer to provide extremely precise mathematical modelling of the shape of the earth and her work on the development of the satellite geodesy models that were eventually incorporated into the Global Positioning System (GPS).

Not only was Dr. West’s technology the most instrumental in the creation of the GPS, there would be no GPS without Dr. West.

Dr. West retired in 1998 after working at Dahlgren for 42 years. A true hidden figure, her contributions to the GPS were only rediscovered when a member of West’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority read a biography West submitted for an alumni function.

On 21 February 2018, the Virginia General Assembly finally recognised Dr. Gladys West for her contributions with a ‘centre aisle ceremony’. In December 2018, she was inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.

Read more about Gladys Mae West