The American Chemical Society salutes Black History Month with a look at three African American chemists whose accomplishments include new uses for common foodstuffs, a drug to fight blindness and a sugar refining process. Each of these achievements have been designated National Historic Chemical Landmarks. The ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, established the landmarks program in 1992 to commemorate seminal events in the history of chemistry and to heighten public awareness of the role chemistry has played in the history of the United States and around the world.
GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER
Agricultural chemist George Washington Carver (ca. 1864-1943) discovered hundreds of industrial uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans and developed new methods of soil improvement. Born a slave in Diamond Grove, Missouri, during the Civil War, Carver struggled to gain an education, finally graduating from what would become Iowa State University. In 1896, he joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he began his famed experiments with peanuts. Carver developed more than 300 uses for the peanut, from cooking oil to printer’s ink. He also realized that legumes, such as peanuts, return nitrates to the soil. His discoveries encouraged southern farmers to rotate legumes with cotton, which robs soil of nutrients.
The agricultural chemistry of George Washington Carver was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark on January 27, 2005, at Tuskegee, where Carver taught for many years.
Millions of people owe their sight to Percy Julian (1899-1975), an African American who developed the anti-glaucoma drug physostigmine. Glaucoma, a disorder in which pressure in the eyeball increases, is a leading cause of blindness. Dr. Julian, who conducted his research at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, was born in Montgomery, Alabama, the grandson of slaves. Because educational opportunities for African Americans were limited in the segregated South, Percy Julian received his undergraduate education from DePauw. As he left for Indiana, his grandfather waved goodbye with a three-fingered hand. The other two fingers had been chopped off as punishment for learning to read as a slave.
A plaque designating Percy Julian’s synthesis of physostigmine as a National Historic Chemical Landmark was presented to DePauw University on April 23, 1999.
Norbert Rillieux, (1806-1894), a free African American from New Orleans, invented a process that revolutionized sugar refining, an innovation perhaps as significant for sugar processing as Eli Whitney’s gin was for cotton manufacturing. Rillieux’s multiple effect evaporator, a device that harnessed the energy of steam rising from boiling sugarcane juice, greatly reduced the cost of sugar refining before the Civil War. Rillieux held several patents for his evaporators, but his application for one patent was initially denied because authorities believed he was a slave and thus not a U.S. citizen.
The invention of the multiple effect evaporator by Norbert Rillieux was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark on April 18, 2002. The plaque marking the event is on the campus of Dillard University, an Historically Black College and University in New Orleans.
The American Chemical Society — the world’s largest scientific society — is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
— Judah Ginsberg
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News media may obtain full text descriptions of each National Historic Chemical Landmark by contacting Michael Bernstein.