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S. A. Life


Black inventor busts stereotypes

Web Posted: 02/26/2006 12:00 AM CST

Elaine Ayala
San Antonio Express-News

William C. Davis was a little boy when his father took him and the rest of his young family to Tuskegee University to meet a friend. Willie, as he was called, is close to 80 now but still remembers the man who would become his mentor and lifelong hero.

Almost seven decades later, he still says, "I can't even stand in his shadow."

Davis, a chemistry professor at St. Philip's College, has had his own share of accomplishments and inventions but speaks in reverent tones about the great George Washington Carver, a 20th-century scientist responsible for a host of inventions and innovations that left indelible marks on U.S. history, the least of which, Davis says, is peanut butter.

At the close of Black History Month, Davis looks back with pride at the work of African American inventors who too often have been excluded from textbooks. They're an accomplished group. These inventors, to note a few, are responsible for creating the modern blood bank, the gas mask, the electronic controls for guided missiles, IBM computers and pacemakers, the carbon filament crucial to the light bulb, a machine that improved shoemaking productivity by 900 percent, a train-to-station communication system and a surgical method that has restored sight to blind patients.

Few, however, probably know the names of these inventors: Charles Richard Drew, who created a system for storing blood plasma; former slave Garrett Morgan, who rescued 32 men trapped in a tunnel by using his gas mask and afterward sold the devices to fire departments and the Army; Otis Boykin, who made the cost of electronic controls far more affordable; Lewis Latimer, one of Thomas Edison's original draftsmen and drafter of Alexander Graham Bell's patent drawings for the telephone; Jan Matzeliger, who developed a machine that could attach sole to shoe in a minute; Granville T. Woods, whose rail communications system was purchased by Bell; and Patricia Bath, the first African American female physician to get a medical invention patented. By using lasers to remove cataract lenses, she transformed eye surgery.

(Photos by Bob Owen/Express-News)

San Antonio inventor William C. Davis

Dr. William C. Davis, inventor and chairman of the natural sciences department at St. Philip's College, helps students Tisa Bowman (center) and Marieta Myers in his lab.

These scientists share perseverance and motivation as well as creativity and talent, says Rayvon Fouché, author of "Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation" (Johns Hopkins University Press).

"What's interesting to me in studying black inventors is the kind of problematic dynamics of race which makes their work all the more interesting, but their lives all the more difficult," Fouché says, especially in an age in which "black people were not believed to be creative or inventive."

Davis has his own favorites, a long list of them, but none as important as Carver, who saved Southern agriculture by developing a crop-rotation system that relieved it of its reliance on cotton. Carver discovered uses for hundreds of products including peanuts, sweet potatoes and pecans, and added clay to paint, making the product lead-free and safer.

Davis' career would be greatly influenced by those trips from Waycross, Ga., to Tuskegee, Ala., where even Henry Ford traveled to recruit Carver to develop synthetic rubber for tires. (Carver declined, the professor says.)

"This is where I got interested in science," says Davis, who was encouraged by Carver and a father who, though not formally educated, successfully peddled a line of tonics and ointments.

"Dad had a strong interest in Tuskegee," Davis says. His father shared Carver's philosophy. "Dr. Carver said, 'Hate me if you must but respect me for what I can do.'"

Kince Chapman Davis also shared a philosophy with contemporary Emiliano Zapata, who vowed to die on his feet rather than live on his knees.

"Daddy," as Davis still refers to his father, was an entrepreneur, a self-trained pharmacist, self-made railway construction engineer and the son of an Ethiopian father and American slave. And he refused to work for a white man. "He didn't think of himself as being inferior to them."

Nor was he afraid, perhaps even when he should have been. Members of the Ku Klux Klan threatened him many times. His father never retreated.

Davis' brother Ossie detailed some of these incidents in his book with wife Ruby Dee in their 1998 memoir, "With Ossie & Ruby: In This Life Together" (William Morrow).

Kince Davis and his wife, Laura, had five children, all successful. Ossie, who died last year, became a well-known actor, winning an Emmy and Golden Globe, among other awards.

William Davis discovered a process for "instantizing" mashed potatoes and the sugar that gives frozen desserts their texture.

The professor seems a little regretful that these two inventions are immediately connected to his life's work — he was inducted into the Texas Science Hall of Fame in 2000 for them — especially because as a Georgian, he prefers rice and isn't particularly fond of potatoes.

Fouché says this is a characteristic of many inventors, who compare themselves, sometimes harshly, against the work of others. "There are two types, the very boastful and confident ones, and the others.

"They believe invention happens," and someone else would have come along and created their invention, says the associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

Like so many inventions, Davis says his surfaced en route to other investigative destinations.

Take the discovery of a wood sugar now used to produce industrial glue. It came by way of a research project for the St. Regis Paper Co. The research team's task was to find out how to better run saws through the western larch tree. "The saw would gum up," Davis says, making milling difficult and inefficient.

Once the team "characterized it," Davis says of the wood sugar, it was extracted from the tree, making sawing more efficient and later leading to the invention of an industrial glue.

"Regardless of your results," Davis says, "you can always use your research."

Over three decades in clinical labs, Davis has worked on an array of projects including the standardizing of blood tests making possible the determination of minute quantities of insulin and growth hormones in it, leading to better diagnoses. At the time, he worked at United Medical Laboratories in Portland, Ore., a forerunner of the nation's commercial labs and leader in automated, lower-cost testing, he says.

"These procedures were just being introduced at the time," Davis says.

"We also used a method of radioimmunoassay to test the thyroxin in the bloodstream to determine the activity of the thyroid gland," Davis says. "Doctors can tell when metabolism is slowing down," a crucial tool for physicians. Both were developed in conjunction with United Medical. He never worked alone, he adds, always with a team.

"In the cool of evening, these are the things I feel very good about," he says.

Though Davis is proud of instant mashed potatoes, "humbled" that they've become an American staple, it's his lesser-known research that brings him the most satisfaction, especially as he remembers the societal roadblocks so many black scientists faced.

"There was a lot of racism about blacks going into science," he says. "A lot of black inventors went to Canada, Germany and Austria for degrees."

Universities tracked black science majors into teaching rather than careers in industry. "I wanted to be a professional chemist," he says. "I wanted to work in a laboratory. I wanted to be interviewed by industry."

Davis holds degrees from Talladega College, Tuskegee University and the University of Idaho, where he earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry. He worked in the Division of Industrial Research at Washington State University and in the pharmaceutical department of the University of Texas Health Science Center, among others. He has taught at St. Philip's since 1983 and is chairman of the department of natural sciences.

Still, he insists, "I wasn't too smart," turning his attention to research he did to prepare for this interview. Before him are stacks of printouts about black inventors who made significant, yet little-known, contributions to American life.

He thinks of his daddy, too.

Long ago, his father wanted one of his sons (son Kenneth was a pharmacist) to study the properties of his tonic, which was made from herbs and the root of the low-bush myrtle. William Davis remembers summoning the strength to tell his father what he already believed.

The tonic, sold as a cure-all, "might be quackery," he told him. His father was disappointed.

Davis says the tonic would produce a sweat, similar to the kind one might experience in a sauna, and open pores. It promised to sweat out toxins and moisturize tissues. It also "cleaned your bowels." His father administered it to all his children every two months.

William Davis made two promises to his father before he died: to "finish my career with kids and education" and to study the Chapman Davis Herb Mixture.

He has "one of the last bottles" and his father's formula. He'll take it into the lab soon, he says. Perhaps Daddy's tonic might have something to offer today.

After all, it does what saunas and spas do now, and look at the impact those industries have had on American life.