Though often overlooked by historians, several Black scientists are among the most spectacular contributors to horticulture and agricultural history. Faced with unique but extraordinary challenges, Percy Julian, Marie Clark Taylor, and Edmond Albius all contributed significantly to botany, horticulture, and humankind through their experimentation and exploration with plants. As we celebrate Black History Month, we consider how these individuals shaped some of the most used plants and methodologies in modern times.
Who is Percy Julian?
Percy Julian was a chemist who participated in the synthesis and large-scale production of steroids from plant compounds. The grandson of enslaved people, Julian studied chemistry and graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1920 from DePauw University. Among his many accomplishments, Julian collaborated with his colleague Josef Pikl on the first total synthesis of physotigmine, the active principle of Calabar bean that is used to treat glaucoma. He went on to work for Glidden where he actively searched for new ways to make products from soybeans and developed an innovative method of converting soybean oil into progesterone at scale, producing five to six pounds of progesterone each day.
Calabar bean from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s collections. Photo from Tropicos.
Who is Marie Clark Taylor?
Marie Clark Taylor was the first Black woman to gain a PhD in botany, and she led the botany department at Howard University until she retired from her successful career in plant science. The National Science Foundation ranks Howard University as the top producer of African-American undergraduates who later earn science and engineering doctoral degrees.
Dr. Taylor was a plant physiologist who studied plant growth in response to light. A relentless advocate for education, Dr. Taylor worked passionately to equip elementary and high school educators with methods to increase the use of botanicals in classroom curriculum. A teacher of teachers, Taylor led summer science institutes for high school teachers to introduce them to innovative methods of teaching science using real plant materials and light microscopes. During her tenure at Howard University, the botany department flourished as she contributed significantly to the design and construction of a new biology building with a botanical greenhouse laboratory on its rooftop.
Who is Edmond Albius?
Edmond Albius was born into slavery and orphaned in 1829 on Reunion, an island 1500 miles east of Africa. As a young boy, he was sent to work on the plantation of botanist Ferreol Bellier-Beamont. Edmond grew up following Bellier-Beamont around the estate learning about the various fruits, vegetables, and flowers he kept, including a vanilla vine.
Vanilla phaeantha blooms at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Photo by Dan Brown.
Vanilla orchids are notoriously difficult to pollinate outside of Mexico, and Bellier-Beaumont’s vanilla orchid seldom flowered and never bore fruit. Shocking the entire island, Edmond discovered a method for pollinating the plants by using a piece of bamboo the size of a toothpick to lift the part that prevents self-pollination out of the way and gently pinching the pollen bearing and receiving stigmas together. His remarkable method is still referenced today as “le geste d’Edmond” (Edmond’s gesture) in French. Edmond’s discovery, which he taught to enslaved people throughout the island and later to a group of horticulturalists, catapulted Reunion to be the largest producer of vanilla beans in the world for decades to come.
In this drawing, Edmond Albius appears with a vanilla orchid vine. Image from the public domain.
Although Edmond Albius, Marie Clark Taylor, and Percy Julian are not as well-remembered as their accomplishments deserve, their work left a lasting impact on the fields of agriculture, horticulture, and botany. These three scientists inspire us all to be observant and mindful in nature, and their stories show us that great things can be achieved even in the face of adversity.
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