Remembering Black Inventors

Most American schoolchildren learn about George Washington Carver, the celebrated African-American inventor who developed more than 300 uses for peanuts and revolutionized agriculture in the South. For many students, he's the only black inventor studied, alongside household names including Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin and more.

But American history is full of black inventors and innovators. We may not learn about them in school, but their contributions are as important as those made by Edison and the others. They helped our country grow and prosper, and in some cases, they made medical history. We're remembering a few notable black inventors today.

Daniel Hale Williams: Open-Heart Surgery

In 1893, surgery was still a highly dangerous undertaking. Despite advances in antiseptics and sterilization techniques, a trip to the hospital often meant death. Among the most dangerous of surgeries were any in which the chest cavity was opened, as it was so easy for germs to enter such a large, open area.

Daniel Hale Williams (Wikimedia Commons)
Daniel Hale Williams
(Wikimedia Commons)

Ten years after graduating from what is known now as the Northwestern University Medical School, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (1856 - 1931) had become known for embracing the latest antiseptic techniques, performing many successful surgeries even in less-than-ideal environments such as the homes of his patients. When he founded Provident Hospital in Chicago, he created an interracial facility with an exceptional success rate for the day – 87 percent of its patients recovered. One of those patients was James Cornish, who was stabbed in the chest and taken to Provident in quickly deteriorating condition.

Williams took a chance by opening Cornish's chest cavity to repair the tear to the lining around his heart. Without the benefit of X-ray or any of the machines and monitors surgeons use today, Williams successfully stitched the tear, applied antiseptics to the chest cavity, and closed Cornish back up. So far, the procedure was nothing new – a few other doctors had attempted open-heart surgery. Their patients, however, had developed infections and died. But Williams became a legend a few months later, when Cornish was healthy enough to leave the hospital and resume a normal life. The patient lived another 50 years, and Williams is hailed today as a life-saving innovator.



Madam C.J. Walker: Hair Care Products

Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker (1867 - 1919) was the daughter of slaves, the first in her family born after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her young life was difficult: She was orphaned at 7 and mistreated by the brother-in-law who took her in. Married at 14, widowed by 20 and all but penniless, she found herself working in a laundry and losing her hair to stress and harsh chemicals.

Madam CJ Walker (Wikimedia Commons)
Madam C.J. Walker
(Wikimedia Commons)

Building on the knowledge she gained from her barber brothers and from working as a commission agent for hair care entrepreneur Annie Malone – as well as following advice she received in a dream – she began developing hair care products that would be gentle on her hair. Her success with her own hair led her to begin marketing her products to other black women. She used her second husband's name to create her trademark, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co.

Walker's success proved swift and huge. She went from having a few dollars in her name when she began, to commissioning a $250,000 house 11 years later, in 1917. Walker became the first American woman of any color to become a self-made millionaire. When she died, she left the bulk of her fortune to charity, including the anti-lynching fund of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization.




Fred Jones: Refrigerated Trucks

Fred Jones (Wikimedia Commons)
Fred Jones (Wikimedia Commons)

Fred Jones (1893 - 1961) apparently never met a machine he couldn't tinker with and improve. He created a portable X-ray machine for a doctor friend. He helped another friend convert his silent-movie theater to be talkie-ready, cobbling together scrap metal to improve the picture as well as adding sound. He kludged a snowmobile from an airplane body with skis attached. But he would help change the world with refrigeration.

Jones was asked to develop a refrigeration process for large tractor-trailers to transport perishable foods. For this mechanical genius, it was no problem. He soon invented a cooling unit that could handle a space the size of a large trailer. Later, he made adjustments to the design so it could be used on trains or ships.

It was a simple thing, but the reverberations it made were huge. Refrigerated transport has changed the face of food in the U.S., making it possible for goods to be transported long distances without going bad. His invention even helped U.S. troops in World War II, allowing blood, medicine and food to be transported to the field without spoiling.

Percy Julian: Synthetic Hormones

Just as George Washington Carver turned the humble peanut into a gold mine, Percy Julian (1899 - 1975) found uses for the soybean that had never been dreamed of before. But it was only after a disheartening attempt at an academic career – where he was denied position after position because of his race – that he moved to the corporate world and began his work with soy.

Percy Julian (AP Photo)
Percy Julian (AP Photo)

At the Glidden Co., Julian synthesized soy into paints and varnishes as well as other products, including flame retardant foam that was later adopted for use by the U.S. Navy during World War II, where it saved many lives. Julian's next project involved successfully synthesizing male and female hormones – progesterone, estrogen and testosterone – from soybeans. After that, he sought to make synthetic cortisone.

Today, cortisone is easily accessed, found over the counter in drugstores and administered as shots by many doctors. Arthritis and allergy sufferers alike find relief thanks to cortisone. Until Julian created his synthetic version, however, cortisone was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. The hormone could only be extracted from animals in tiny quantities, so only wealthy people could afford it. Julian's invention, though, made it possible for almost anyone to find relief with cortisone.

Originally published February 2015

Is there a black inventor or innovator who you especially admire? Tell us about them in the comments!