What Color is My World?

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What Color is My World? Page 3

by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


  In 1923, while still living in Hallock, Fred married Minnie Hagstrom, a tall, blond Swedish-American. Interracial marriages were still rare, just as they had been in his father’s time, and some of the locals were shocked and angered. But Jones had always been independent and didn’t care what they thought. Unfortunately, he continued his long hours at work, which put a strain on the marriage until they soon divorced.

  For the next twenty-two years, Jones continued his solitary ways. Then in 1945, at the age of fifty-two, he met thirty-one-year-old Louise Lucille Powell, a widow with a teenage son. They married a year later, with Jones determined not to make the same mistakes he’d made in his first marriage. He devoted himself to being a good father to his stepson, Tate. Unfortunately, only three months after the wedding, Tate died of leukemia.

  By the 1950s, Jones’s fame was increasing. Articles about his accomplishments began to appear in newspapers and magazines. He was invited to become the first African-American member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. Howard University awarded him an honorary doctorate degree.

  Fred Jones died of lung cancer on February 21, 1962; he was sixty-eight years old. Perhaps the most prestigious of his many honors was awarded after his death, in 1991, when President George W. Bush bestowed the National Medal of Technology on Jones and Numero. They were the first people in history to receive the honor posthumously and Jones was the first African American to receive the honor.


  * The state of Kansas produces enough wheat annually to bake thirty-six billion loaves of bread.

  * An acre of wheat can make enough bread to feed 9,000 people for an entire day.

  Without JOSEPH LEE, we might never have had fried chicken. He didn’t invent fried chicken. He didn’t even invent the bread crumbs that coat fried chicken. What he did invent was the machine that makes bread and the machine that makes bread crumbs.

  Despite his humble upbringing in Boston, he rose from his job as a bakery boy to become the owner of two successful restaurants, as well as a catering business for the wealthy, and the operator of a summer resort. In 1895, he patented the idea for a machine that would grind stale, otherwise unusable bread into crumbs to be used in cooking. After that, he invented a bread-making machine that made bread faster than six people could and more cheaply. Both machines are the basis for thousands of similar machines used around the world today.


  * Before 1860, people thought food spoiled suddenly, like turning on a light switch.

  * French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) proved that microorganisms were behind food spoilage, which happened gradually as they grew and spread throughout the food.

  Look, I know germs and microbes and all those other microscopic creatures have an important place in the whole ecosystem thing — I get that. But some of them are just plain creepy and disgusting and need to be exterminated! Fortunately, LLOYD HALL figured out a way to do just that. No, he’s not the kind of exterminator that comes through the house and sprays termites. He’s the guy who figured out how to keep our food from spoiling so that we can all eat fresher food at a reasonable cost. He figured out how to combine sodium chloride with crystals of sodium nitrate and nitrite, which kept the nitrogen in the air from spoiling food. His patented method is still used today to preserve meats. He also discovered that some of the spices (such as ginger and cloves) that people were using to preserve food contained molds and bacteria that actually made the food go bad faster. He invented a way to use ethylene oxide gas in a vacuum chamber to kill the evil microbes. Later, his method was adapted to sterilize prescription drugs, medical instruments, and cosmetics. So, thanks to Lloyd and his more than one hundred patents, we all eat a lot better — and safer.


  * Potato chips use 10 percent of the U.S. potato crop.

  * Potato chips are the most popular snack food in America.

  * Worldwide, people spend $16.4 billion on potato chips every year.

  Finally, something I really care about: potato chips! I couldn’t survive one day of school lunch without those yummy chips to keep my taste buds alive. Thank you, GEORGE CRUM, for inventing them in 1853. Crum was a chef at a fancy hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York. Half black, half Huron Indian, he must have felt a little intimidated when, as the story goes, Cornelius Vanderbilt (one of the the wealthiest people in the United States), sent his meal back to the kitchen complaining that his potatoes were too soggy. Crum sliced the potatoes thinner and cooked them. But Vanderbilt sent them back again. Crum decided to teach the fussy moneybags a lesson: he sliced the potatoes as thin as coins and fried them in boiling oil. Now they were too crisp to be eaten with a fork (and the snobs back then wouldn’t eat with their fingers). To Crum’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved them, and they soon became so popular that they were sold throughout the country. Crum made enough money to open his own restaurant, which served his “Saratoga Chips” and catered to some of the wealthiest people in America.

  “If you bump me one more time, I’ll drown you in the toilet,” Ella warned.

  “Then move your big butt over and give me some room,” I said.

  “What did you say about my butt?” She spun around and pointed the disinfectant spray bottle at me.

  I pointed my Windex bottle at her. We stared at each other like a couple gunslingers. All we needed was a tumbleweed to roll by. And given the messy condition of this bathroom, I wouldn’t be surprised if one did.

  “How’s it going in there?” Mr. Mital said, poking his head in the doorway.

  We both jumped. I was starting to think that Ella’s suggestion of attaching a bell to him was a good idea.

  “There’s plenty of mold,” Ella said. “Maybe you’ve got a story about some black inventor who beat Louis Pasteur to discovering penicillin.”

  “Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928,” I said. “He was Scottish and he won the Nobel Prize.”

  “Very good, Herbie,” Mr. Mital said.

  Ella stuck out her tongue at me.

  “But just like with everything else, he stood on the shoulders of the people who came before him. John Tyndall makes reference to the same process in 1875. And in 1897, French physician Ernest Duchesne noticed that Arab stable boys deliberately kept their saddles in a damp, dark room to allow mold to grow on them. When he asked them why, they said that the mold healed the saddle sores on horses. Unfortunately for Dr. Duchesne, when he submitted those findings in a paper, he was rejected because he was only twenty-three years old.”

  “They rejected him because he was too young?” Ella protested. “Thousands of lives could have been saved!”

  “Happens all the time. You’re too young, you’re too foreign, you’re too black, you’re too female. And we all pay for it.”

  Ella sighed. “Yeah, well, maybe when we’re done cleaning toilets, we can learn more about that history.”

  “You can learn it right here,” Mr. Mital said. He opened the medicine cabinet.

  “It’s empty,” I said.

  “True, there’s nothing in it right now, but it’s packed to overflowing with history. With the people who dedicated their lives to relieving the suffering of others.”

  I thought back to my history classes, trying to come up with the names of African-American scientists he might mention.

  “Ever hear of cortisone?” Mr. Mital asked.

  “Yeah,” Ella said. “Grandma takes it for her arthritis. And Auntie Shinara takes it for allergies.”

  “And a lot of professional athletes get cortisone injections when they are injured,” I added.

  “They can all thank a black man, Dr. Percy Julian, for easing their pain. Also, the fourteen million people who get blood transfusions every year can thank a black doctor named Charles Drew. The 700,000 Americans who have open-heart surgery every year owe their lives, in part, to Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who was a black doctor in Chicag
o and an early pioneer in the procedure.” He stuck his hand into the empty medicine cabinet. “So, you see, the cabinet isn’t empty at all. If you know what to look for.”

  “Kinda like a doctor examining a patient,” Ella said.

  Mr. Mital’s smile widened. “Exactly right!”

  I made a kissing-up face at Ella, but she was too pleased with herself to notice.

  “What makes their accomplishments all the more remarkable is that they did it at a time when it was hard for a black scientist to be taken seriously. They had everything going against them — and they still kept trying.”

  I sat on the edge of the tub and opened my journal.


  * Open-heart surgery is when a patient’s heart is opened and internal structures are operated on.

  * About 694,000 open-heart surgeries were performed in 2006 in the U.S.

  When Grandfather had heart surgery last year, I quickly learned a whole lot more than I wanted to know about heart surgery. But until Mr. Mital, I didn’t know that one of the first doctors to perform a successful open-heart surgery was black! DANIEL HALE WILLIAMS started out working as a barber and attending the Classical Academy to study bass violin. There he met Dr. Henry Palmer, a Civil War hero known as “the Fighting Surgeon.” I guess this was one of Mr. Mital’s “shoulders of giants,” because Williams immediately dedicated himself to becoming a surgeon. After becoming a doctor, he became a “fighting surgeon” like Dr. Palmer by fighting prejudice. Realizing that blacks had a hard time getting into medical and nursing schools — or receiving good medical care in hospitals — in 1891 Dr. Williams founded Provident Hospital, Chicago’s first nonsegregated hospital, which also included a nursing school for African Americans. In 1893, he was one of the first doctors to perform open-heart surgery without losing the patient to infection afterward (which is how most of those surgeries ended back then). Dr. Williams also developed antiseptic methods to prevent infection.


  * The U.S. uses about 38,000 units of blood every day.

  * Every two seconds, someone in the U.S. needs blood.

  CHARLES DREW wasn’t just one of the most brilliant students at his high school and college, he was also a star athlete. He graduated with honors from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, then went on to earn his doctor of medicine and master of surgery degrees there as well. He became the first African American to receive a doctor of medical science degree from Columbia University; it was there that he began to specialize in blood. Dr. Drew developed the concept of large-scale blood banks, which saved the lives of a ton of British soldiers and civilians during World War II. Dr. Drew protested against racial segregation regarding the use of blood (whites got “white” blood; blacks got “black” blood — how dumb is that?) because it lacked scientific basis, and he was fired because of it. Nevertheless, Dr. Drew was the first black surgeon to serve as an examiner on the American Board of Surgery. In Quebec, they even named a park after him.

  At the age of forty-five, the man whose expertise was responsible for saving thousands of lives was killed in a car crash. Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, former president of Howard University, said, “Here we have what rarely happens in history, a life which crowds into a handful of years significance so great, men will never forget it.” I know I won’t.


  Born on April 11, 1899, in Birmingham, Alabama, Percy Lavon Julian knew at a very young age that he wanted to be a scientist. His parents, descended from slaves, encouraged his passion for learning. Percy’s mother, Elizabeth, was a teacher. His father, James, was a railroad mail carrier and an avid reader of books about math, science, and philosophy. Both parents realized that a solid education was the only hope for their children’s success.

  Percy, the oldest child, was forced by segregation to attend a school with no science labs — unlike the whites-only schools nearby. His parents, however, accepted no excuses, and soon after his graduation from high school, Percy left home for DePauw University in Indiana, which accepted a few black students. The world was ready for a change, and he would help it change by being the first college-educated member of the Julian family.

  Discrimination continued at DePauw, but Percy always heard his parents’ voices encouraging him: “No excuses, son.” He studied hard, worked many odd jobs, played in a jazz band, and helped out at the church. He graduated with many honors: he was valedictorian and a member of both the Sigma Xi and Phi Beta Kappa honor societies. As his class’s most outstanding graduate, Percy was sure he would receive many offers from universities to continue his education. His white classmates received offers, but none came to him. He soon discovered that no one at the universities believed there was a place for a black chemist.


  To be a chemist, Percy needed to earn his doctorate degree, but he was not accepted into any program. In 1921, Percy took a teaching job at a predominantly black school, Fisk University, in Tennessee. After two years at Fisk, he was awarded the Austin Fellowship in Chemistry at Harvard University. His academic achievement was outstanding: he earned his master’s degree with straight As, but these were overlooked because of his skin color. Harvard declined to continue his teaching assistantship out of fear that white students would not want a black man as their teacher. Percy had to leave Harvard without the chance to earn his doctorate. He then taught at another predominantly black school, Howard University in Washington, D.C., until 1929. There he won a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study at the University of Vienna in Austria. Percy loved Europe. He worked with a demanding professor, Ernst Späth, to re-create chemical compounds previously found only in nature. Percy also enjoyed the freedom from much of the racism he had experienced. He had friends of many races and nationalities. He regularly attended the opera, went skiing, and played piano for his friends, introducing them to the lively spirituals he’d been raised on.

  In 1931, he received his PhD from the University of Vienna, becoming the third African American to earn a doctorate in chemistry. He returned to DePauw University, where he was joined by a friend from Vienna, Dr. Josef Pikl. Together they worked to synthesize physo-stigmine (used to treat glaucoma, Alzheimer’s disease, and other ailments), which they achieved in 1935.

  Despite acclaim over Percy’s achievement, DePauw refused to grant him a full-time teaching position because he was black. Tired of constant rejection by universities, Percy turned to private industry.

  He received an offer to work for the Institute of Paper Chemistry in Appleton, Wisconsin. The offer was later withdrawn when the institute realized that Appleton was a “sundown town” and blacks were legally prohibited from spending the night there.

  In 1936, Percy went to work for Glidden Paint Company as director of the Soya Product Division, which sought to develop uses for Glidden’s vast soybean holdings. This division soon became Glidden’s most profitable part of the company.

  In the 1950s, Percy focused his research on the new “miracle drug,” cortisone, which was derived from the adrenal glands of cattle. Cortisone reduced swelling, which alleviated pain from all kinds of afflictions and injuries. Unfortunately, the drug was expensive to create and few could afford it. But Percy developed a method of synthesizing cortisone from the soy plant, which made it cheaper and more widely available.

  In 1953, Percy started his own company, Julian Laboratories, in Oak Park, Illinois. He then opened branches in Mexico and Guatemala, where he used the local yams to synthesize more products. He later sold his company for $2.3 million and worked as a consultant to major companies in the U.S. and abroad. In 1964, he founded Julian Research Institute.


  Being a groundbreaker, Percy was naturally attracted to someone as courageous and ambitious as he was. That’s why, in 1935, he married Anna Johnson, who went on to become the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. It was fifty years bef
ore another black woman earned a doctorate in sociology at that school.

  Racism and hate followed Percy. In late 1950, Percy and his family purchased a home in Oak Park, Illinois. A few months later, while the family was out of town, the house was bombed. The explosion took place outside the bedrooms of their two children, Percy Jr., ten, and Faith, six. This attack made the Julians dig in even deeper, and their neighbors rallied to support them, welcoming the family and condemning the attack.

  Percy Julian died of liver cancer on April 19, 1975. His many honors included nineteen honorary doctorate degrees; his 1973 election to the National Academy of Sciences (where he was the second African-American scientist inducted from any field); a U.S. postage stamp honoring him in 1993; and in 1990, induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But his real legacy was something that few others could claim: he reduced the pain and suffering of millions of people.

  “You gotta serious case of the ‘Bad Finger Boogie,’” Ella said, pointing at my hand. I was shaking out the numbness from writing so much in my journal.

  “Too easy,” I said. “‘Bad Finger Boogie’ is the original title of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends.’ They called it that because John Lennon had to use his middle finger when playing the piano due to an injury of his forefinger.”

  Ella shook her head. “You know, this game would be a lot more fun if you didn’t always sound like a textbook.”

  “Don’t challenge me to Beatles trivia if you can’t handle getting whooped.”

  Ella laughed. “Oh, it’s on now, loser.”

  “I’m not a loser, just a mocker.”


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