Recognizing Black Botanists and Encouraging Visions of Diversity in the Field

Musings of teacher and NPSF board member, Emily Petersen; Edited by S. Elie

February is a time for plant lovers to start dreaming about planning their summer gardens, pruning perennials, and maybe tending to some snow damaged shrubs. There are numerous great northwest gardening blogs, so this post is not about tending to your plants. Instead, we offer a little history lesson about African American botanists in honor of Black History Month.

History Channel

History Channel

You’ve likely heard of George Washington Carver, best known for developing crop rotation techniques that involved peanuts, sweet potatoes, and cotton. When I was growing up in the 1990’s he was the only Black scientist I ever remember learning about.

Now I find myself in the front of the classroom as a science teacher and realize that the historical figures we teach about in school may shape my students’ views of themselves and what science looks like for years to come.

During the first week of school, I have my 6th-grade students imagine what a scientist looks like. Crazy grey hair, a long lab coat, and glasses are inevitable descriptors. Most students can only name a handful of well known scientists and they are usually white and male.

After looking at examples of scientists who work in a variety of fields from all different backgrounds, I emphasize to students that my hope is for them to see science and scientists differently, as a place where diversity can lead to deeper understanding.

In the teaching world we talk about the importance of exposing students to “windows and mirrors” -- opportunities to learn about influential figures or characters who reflect their own lives and lives of those unlike them.

Fortunately there are many great resources available that are specifically dedicated to celebrating ways in which African Americans have contributed to science. Here are just two of the numerous new “windows” I found after some online searching.

Public Domain

Public Domain



O’Neil Ray Collins: 1931-1989

We are no strangers to fungi in the northwest, and myco-enthusiasts may be interested to learn more about O’Neil Ray Collins’ discoveries of slime mold mating types.

The son of Louisiana cotton farmers, Collins went on to study botany at the University of Iowa and eventually served as Chairman of the Department of Botany at the University of California, Berkeley from 1976-1981.

Marie Clark Taylor: 1911 - 1990

Marie Clark Taylor primarily studied the effects of light on plant growth. All of the online copies of her dissertation were blocked behind paywalls, but it sounds intriguing: The influence of definite photoperiods upon the growth and development of initiated floral primordia (EBSCO link). Floral primordia are the earliest plant cells that will develop into flowers, and varying amounts of light can influence when the plant shifts from growing its stem and leaves and starts to grow flowers.

Taylor is most well known as the first woman to earn a science PhD from Fordham University. She went on to serve as the Head of the Botany Department at Howard University.

Erica Guttman