Benjamin Banneker, the African-American Mathematician Who May Have Saved Washington, D.C.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

Many people who have a passing familiarity with Washington, D.C. know it was originally styled after famous European locales by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, then completed by Andrew Ellicott after L’Enfant was given the boot in 1792. Too few tourists and history fans, however, know that the U.S. capital might have been a very different place if not for the surveying work of Benjamin Banneker—a highly accomplished mathematician, astronomer, and scholar who challenged Thomas Jefferson and his peers to recognize African-American achievement when it was right under their noses (and feet).

Benjamin Banneker was born November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Robert and Mary Banneker. While scholars still debate almost all the specifics of his background and early life, according to the most popular story, both sides of his family suffered under enslavement in the soon-to-be United States. Although records are scarce, it's said that Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, a woman named Molly Welsh, was falsely convicted of theft in England and sentenced to indentured servitude in Maryland (not an uncommon practice at the time). After earning her freedom, she rented land in Baltimore County and purchased two slaves to help farm it. Several years later, after the farming operation was established, she freed both men.

One of them, who is said to have been abducted from a royal family in Africa earlier in his life, displayed a keen interest in astronomy and other scientific subjects. He was called Bannake or Bankka, and Molly Welsh married him, violating state law that forbid marriage to slaves. Later, their daughter Mary and her husband—a Guinean man who’d been abducted, enslaved, and then baptized as Robert and freed—chose to adopt the surname Banneker at the time of their own marriage. Just a few years after regaining his freedom, records show that Robert was able to purchase a 100-acre farm (possibly the same one his mother-in-law rented), where his family would live out much of their lives and where his son’s scholarship would bloom.

Benjamin Banneker grew up as one of only 200 free African-Americans among 13,000 whites and 4000 slaves in Baltimore County. His experience with formal instruction was limited to a brief stretch in a one-room, mixed-race Quaker schoolhouse, but he was a keen study from his earliest years. Perhaps with his doting grandmother Molly’s help, he learned to read and soon became especially interested in mathematics and mechanics, often performing calculations and experiments on his own.

Once he was old enough to work on the family farm, Banneker settled into a lifestyle that combined this work with scholarly achievement. After his father’s death when Banneker was 27, he continued running the farm with his mother and sisters. The horses, cows, garden, and multiple beehives he kept enabled a simple, comfortable life for the family, according to one 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society. Using crop rotation and irrigation techniques that wouldn’t catch on in the U.S. for many decades, he also raised profitable tobacco crops that were sold alongside his produce in the Ellicott family’s store. Taking heed of food shortages during the Revolutionary War, Banneker also swapped tobacco out for wheat to help feed American soldiers.

Throughout his life, Elizabeth Ross Haynes writes, Banneker “found time to study all the books which he could borrow.” He became well-versed in topics throughout the sciences and humanities. The 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society remembered Banneker as “an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiving impulses from what was taking place around him.”

For example, one rather illustrative 1797 journal entry reads:

Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.

Some historians have speculated that Banneker’s many childhood lessons with his grandmother Molly, who may have gained a sophisticated understanding of astronomy from Bannake, could have fostered his particular expertise with the subject. However, it was his prowess with mathematics for which he first became renowned throughout Baltimore County, according to a 1912 article. As word spread of his exceptional skills, far-away scholars began sending Banneker complex mathematical problems, and they continued to do so throughout his life. Banneker reportedly always solved them, often responding in verse and with a fresh problem.

As a young man, Banneker also gained fame and admiration for miles around due to one of his earliest known mechanical feats: building a working clock almost entirely out of wood from scratch. It may have been the first clock ever assembled completely from American parts, according to Haynes (although other historians have since disputed this). Banneker reportedly only had a borrowed pocket watch to use for reference on clockwork mechanisms, while his wooden version contained functioning, carved-to-scale components. The clock continued working until a few days after Banneker’s death, when a fire destroyed his cabin home and many of its contents—clock included.

However, Banneker’s accomplished scholarship remained mostly unknown outside the region until he encountered the Ellicott family. In 1772, the Quaker Ellicotts purchased the land next door to Banneker’s and began building new gristmill facilities there. Banneker’s fascination with the mill’s mechanics made him a frequent visitor to the site. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the similarly scholarly Ellicotts were adamant proponents of racial equality, and they collaborated with Banneker as well as encouraged wider application of—and recognition for—his unique skills.

George Ellicott, a close friend of Banneker’s for decades, was himself a student of astronomy and eagerly shared both his resources and queries with his neighbor. Banneker took great advantage of the borrowed tools and books in performing exquisite astronomical calculations, such as predicting a solar eclipse near-exactly in 1789. He also began building the foundations for several atlases and technical treatises he’d release in the decades before his death. In 1791, George’s cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, gave Banneker a national stage, after Andrew had gone to George requesting help with a new job. George, being otherwise busy, suggested Banneker's assistance. The job was surveying land along the Potomac River for what would soon be the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Ellicott's plan for Washington, D.C. Image credit: Leeann Cafferata, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The plans for the large city were laid out by French architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who volunteered for service in the American Revolution’s Continental Army and was hired for the project by George Washington in 1791. Before long, however, tensions mounted over its direction and progress of the project, and when L’Enfant was fired in 1792, he took off with the plans in tow.

But according to legend, the plans weren’t actually lost: Banneker and the Ellicotts had worked closely with L’Enfant and his plans while surveying the city’s site. As the University of Massachusetts explains, Banneker had actually committed the plans to memory “[and] was able to reproduce the complete layout—streets, parks, major buildings.” However, the University of Massachusetts also points out that other historians doubt Banneker had any involvement in this part of the survey at all, instead saying that Andrew and his brother were the ones who recreated L’Enfant’s plan. It's an intriguing myth, but it may only be that.

Yet Banneker’s valuable contributions to the project drew attention, and set the stage for later correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. During the project, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger made public note of Banneker as “an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation."

Gelman Library, George Washington University // Public Domain

In 1791, Banneker had finished his “painstakingly calculated ephemeris,” or table of the position of celestial bodies, which he would publish alongside charts, literature, and humanitarian and political essays in six almanacs with 28 editions in the following six years. Upon its initial completion, he first sent a copy of the ephemeris to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a famously direct, yet perfectly polite, letter challenging Jefferson’s opinion that African-Americans suffered an innate intellectual disadvantage [PDF]. Among other things, the letter observed:

Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual ... might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied [short of] their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race ... and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity to which many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received from the immediate hand of that being ... [and] that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven.

Jefferson’s letter of response the same year was significantly shorter than Banneker’s, and not without traces of the mindset Banneker sought to defeat. But it also documented the scholar’s triumph in gaining some respect for his accomplishments, and in helping to dislodge certain prejudices from the minds of the era’s most learned men.

On August 30, 1791, Jefferson wrote:

SIR,

I THANK you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.

The discrimination African-Americans suffered from Jefferson and other bigwigs is well-documented, and Banneker’s brave, considered opposition to it stands forever among his many admirable achievements. The 1854 document A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker reflected:

He appears to have been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, toward the improvement of his race; at a period of our history when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, and had already earned a respectable position amongst men of science.

Records suggest that Banneker also suffered discrimination by lower-profile white Americans, and had his achievements belittled and questioned. Despite the many pushbacks he withstood, however, Banneker remained joyfully curious and generous of spirit throughout his life. According to A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker, he was able to slough off the bitterness of others in part thanks to his prevailing interest in study. “His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people,” the book notes, “with whom his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact.”

Benjamin Ellicott, who prepared extensive notes on Banneker’s life for the Maryland Historical Society, remembered him as such in a letter:

Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, living alone, having never married,--cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character … [He was known as] kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasant, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own home.

Given Banneker’s wide-ranging interests and enthusiasm, then, it is perhaps fitting that a variety of parks, schools, awards, streets, businesses, and other public and private institutions and facilities all bear his name today. Admirers can learn about the accomplished scholar at Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, or at Baltimore, Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Others can choose to follow in his footsteps by exploring their passions and hobbies at community centers named for Banneker in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Catonsville, Maryland. It seems possible, however, that the man himself might have been most fond of—or, at least, a very frequent visitor to—Maryland’s own Banneker Planetarium.

Header images via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
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Retrobituaries
Virginia Apgar, the Woman Whose Name Saves Newborns
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain
March of Dimes/Library of Congress via Wikimedia // Public Domain

How important is Dr. Virginia Apgar to the modern practice of obstetrics? Here is the way the National Library of Medicine’s website puts it: “[E]very baby born in a modern hospital anywhere in the world is looked at first through the eyes of Dr. Virginia Apgar.”

Apgar created a quick and reliable way to determine the health of a newborn baby, an examination that is usually referred to today as a baby’s Apgar test. Before her test, invented in 1952, there was no objective way to determine the health of a newborn, and babies were given little medical attention immediately after birth. Problems often escaped notice until they became critical.

To determine an Apgar score, a nurse, midwife, or physician examines the baby for five criteria—skin color, heart rate, reflexes, muscle tone, and breathing—at both one minute and five minutes after birth (and sometimes in further follow-up tests). Each criterion is given zero, one, or two points. A score over seven is considered normal. A score below three is seriously low. Babies often have lower scores at one minute after birth, but by five minutes have perked up and score in the normal range.

Because a common mnemonic for the criteria uses the letters APGAR (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, and respiration) to create a “backronym,” or retrofitted acronym, many people do not realize Apgar is an eponym—named after a person. Apgar herself was often amused when people were surprised to find she was a real individual.

But in person, Virginia Apgar was hard to forget. She was a pioneer in several fields of medicine, helping to establish anesthesiology as a medical specialty, working to study and improve obstetrical anesthesia, and advancing the study of birth defects. She helped organize and administer the first Division of Anesthesia at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, her alma mater, and became the first woman to be a full professor there.

As a teacher of medicine, Apgar was known for her uninhibited sense of humor and could talk about anything without embarrassment. Because her own tailbone was at an odd angle, she would have medical students feel for it to help them learn how to administer spinal anesthetics. She always traveled with a resuscitation kit that included a penknife and an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube inserted into the windpipe to ventilate the lungs). "Nobody, but nobody, is going to stop breathing on me!" she reportedly declared.

In the late 1950s, after Apgar had already made a name for herself with her work in anesthesiology and the creation of the Apgar score, she turned her attention to the study and prevention of birth defects. She was asked to join what was then the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis-March of Dimes (now simply the March of Dimes), which started researching and advocating for those with birth defects after it met its original goal of creating a vaccine against polio. As a director and later vice president at the March of Dimes, Apgar championed research that showed how factors such as infectious diseases, radiation exposure, substance abuse, and chemical exposure could cause birth defects. In her years with the organization, she also traveled the country speaking and calling attention to the issue of birth defects.

Outside of medicine, Apgar was a gardener, fly fisherman, and took flying lessons. Throughout her life, she was an excellent amateur violinist who often played in chamber ensembles. She even learned to make stringed instruments, including violins, a viola, and a cello.

In fact, her work as an amateur luthier even led her to a short career as a thief. In 1957, a musician friend noticed that a maple shelf in a phone booth at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center would make an excellent back for a viola. The friend and Apgar set out to take the shelf at night and replace it with another piece of wood, which they managed to stain to just the right color. But the piece they brought was slightly too long, and needed to be shortened. While her friend went into a nearby ladies’ room to do the sawing, Apgar guarded the door. The piece became the back of Apgar’s viola, and was one of four instruments she handcrafted that were played by pediatricians at a 1994 ceremony to honor a commemorative U.S. stamp with Apgar’s image. (The instruments were later donated to Columbia, where they can still be rented.)

Virginia Apgar died of liver disease at the age of 65 in 1974, but her name lives on around the world—even though many don’t know it—in the life-saving score she designed for infants.

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Retrobituaries
Laura de Force Gordon, Pioneering Newspaper Publisher, Lawyer, and Suffragist
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock
Photo Illustration Mental Floss. Portrait: Paul Fearn, Alamy. Background images: iStock

Laura de Force Gordon's life was filled with firsts. A dedicated writer and reporter, she was the first woman to publish a daily newspaper in the United States. She was also one of the nation's first female attorneys—although it took several determined campaigns for her to earn the right to practice. She's also credited with launching the women’s suffrage movement in California. Yet her legacy is not without controversy, and an intriguing discovery long after her death has led to speculation about her personal life.

Born Laura de Force in Erie County, Pennsylvania, on August 17, 1838, she was a Spiritualist before she was a feminist. The 19th century religious movement focused on communication with spirits and ghosts of the deceased, and de Force gained a following as a trance speaker—someone who could channel a spirit. She spent her early adulthood traveling through her native Pennsylvania and New England, giving lectures on a variety of topics including Spiritualism, temperance, and women’s suffrage.

She met her husband, Dr. Charles H. Gordon, while working as a trance speaker, and the couple decided to move to Nevada, and then California, in the late 1860s. She continued to give lectures on Spiritualism, the abolition of alcohol, and women’s rights along the way, although not without some pushback: Occasionally, men in the audience would stand up and try to debate her, but “she would turn it on them every time and the audience would roar,” according to the Lodi Historian.

Like a number of women—including Victoria Woodhull, often credited as the first woman to run for president of the United States—Gordon used her platform as a trance speaker and medium as a launching pad for a career as a women’s rights campaigner. She gave California’s first recorded speech on women and the vote in San Francisco in 1868, then helped found the California Woman’s Suffrage Society in 1870, often speaking before the state legislature on the society’s behalf. She would later serve as its president from 1884 to 1894.

Her career as a newspaperwoman began as a side effect of a failed campaign for a state senate seat. In 1871, just a year after she settled in California, the Independent Party of San Joaquin nominated her as their candidate. Women couldn’t yet vote, making a win highly unlikely, but the run was meant to make a point. Yet the male-dominated newspapers of the region didn’t take her campaign—or her work for women’s rights—seriously. Most just ignored it.

Gordon's solution was to purchase her own newspaper, the Stockton Leader. Her career as a newspaperwoman didn't end there: She converted the Stockton Leader to a daily in 1874 (in the process becoming the first woman to publish a daily paper in the nation); edited the Daily Democrat in Oakland, California; helped her sister Gertie found a weekly newspaper of her own; and served as a regular contributor to several California newspapers as well as the New Northwest of Portland, Oregon. Her status as a reporter and publisher granted her entry into a number of venues that would otherwise be closed to her as a woman, such as the State Assembly, where she had a press desk as a correspondent for the Sacramento Bee.

"LADY LAWYERS"

But Gordon wasn’t content to remain a journalist. She wanted a career in the courtroom. In order to make that happen, though, a number of things needed to change—starting with a California law that barred anyone but white males from being admitted to the state bar. Gordon teamed up with fellow writer and activist Clara Shortridge Foltz, and the pair worked together with state lawmakers to change the rule. Their work culminated in the Woman Lawyer’s Bill in March 1878, which went beyond its name to allow admission of “any citizen or person” to the bar.

That was just the first hurdle Gordon and Foltz had to leap over to begin their law careers. Although they were now technically permitted to work as attorneys, and no specific rule prevented their law training, law schools could still prevent them—in practice, if not in theory—from getting the education they needed for successful careers.

The saga began when Foltz registered to attend classes at Hastings College of the Law, one of the first law schools in California. Her first day was full of disruptions, as the male students imitated her every move as part of a hazing ritual. On the second day, she was blocked from classes by a janitor and had to get a note from the dean before she was allowed in.

On the third day, Gordon joined her friend, and the two vowed to support each other in their attempts to get a legal education. This lasted only a day before the school’s Board of Directors asked them not to return. “There was no written explanation for the exclusion, but Dean Hastings told [Foltz] and Gordon that their presence, particularly their rustling skirts, was bothering the other scholars,” writes Barbara Babcock in her book Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz.

A photo of Laura de Force Gordon
Ralph Lea

The pair decided to fight. They continued to attend lectures until physically barred from the classrooms by their male classmates. Babcock writes that "they came to class one day to find the men blocking their entrance, staring at them in silent hostility."

In February 1879, they took the fight to the courts and the state legislature. Gordon and Foltz devised a single-line amendment to the state constitution, which Gordon sent to her allies at the second California constitutional convention, then in progress at the time. It read, “No person shall, on account of sex, be disqualified from entering upon or pursuing any lawful business, vocation or profession.” It was soon adopted by the convention.

At the same time, with advice from Gordon’s friend David Terry, a legal expert from Stockton, California, each woman filed a lawsuit against the college’s Board of Directors. The lawsuits relied on the fact that the law school was part of the state’s coeducational, taxpayer-funded public university system and should be required to admit the pair under those conditions. Gordon filed in the California Supreme Court, while Foltz filed in the state’s trial court. When the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, Gordon joined Foltz in the trial court.

By many accounts, the pair argued their case eloquently and skillfully. At the end of the trial, even Delos Lake, one of the attorneys representing the law school’s board, was convinced that they would be good attorneys. “If fair ladies were to be lawyers, [I] would rather have them as associates than opponents,” he said—apparently meaning he didn't ever want to be on the other side of the dock from them again. The judge ruled in their favor, as did the California Supreme Court on appeal, and they were admitted to the college.

For both, it was an enormous victory, and they became the first two women admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of California.

Once she obtained admission to the bar, Gordon gave up publishing newspapers to practice law (though she remained active in reporting on suffrage). She was especially known for her murder trial defenses, and was made an honorary member of the Royal Italian Literary Society of Rome after her successful defense of an Italian immigrant facing execution in one particular trial. Legend says the Southern Pacific Railroad gave her a lifetime pass after she did some exceptional legal work for the company. She even faced off against her friend and law school ally Foltz, who worked as a prosecutor, in the trial of confessed murderer George Wheeler—one of the few trials Gordon lost. Six years after being admitted to the California bar, she was admitted to the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming only the second woman in the U.S., after Belva Lockwood of Washington D.C., to gain that qualification.

"A LOVER OF HER OWN SEX"

Around 1880, Gordon suffered a devastating blow in her personal life. She found out that her husband had lied to her for nearly two decades: He had never divorced his first wife, who he had abandoned in Scotland when he traveled to the U.S. When Gordon found out about her husband’s transgressions—supposedly after detectives hired by his first wife tracked him down—she divorced him, referring to herself as a widow for the remainder of her life.

Portrait of Laura de Force Gordon
Congress of Women, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1979, more than 70 years after her death, Gordon turned heads again, this time when a 100-year-old time capsule buried in San Francisco’s Washington Square was opened. In it was a copy of a travel book Gordon had written, The Great Geysers of California and How to Reach Them, which she had donated for the time capsule in 1879, around the same time as her divorce. On the book she had written, “If this little book should see the light after its 100 years of entombment, I would like its readers to know that the author was a lover of her own sex and devoted the best years of her life in striving for the political equality and social and moral elevation of women.”

The inscription has inspired debate. Some have interpreted this to be a declaration that she was a lesbian, while others interpret her words as a more platonic statement in favor of women’s rights. Gordon’s life offers few clues; although she never married again after her divorce, there is no surviving evidence that she had any romantic relationships with other women, either.

Gordon was not a perfect champion of rights for all. Like other members of the Democratic Party in the late 1800s, she spoke out against Chinese immigrants to the West Coast, who she said were taking jobs and opportunities from white American citizens. Gordon gave a number of anti-Chinese lectures, and also made comments—including during the lawsuit against Hastings—condemning the idea that Chinese men should be allowed to do anything white women were barred from. The extent to which these attitudes were a matter of personal conviction or political expediency remains a source of debate.

In 1901, Gordon retired to Lodi, but her retirement was short-lived. She went back on the lecture circuit again in 1906, traveling until she caught a cold in Los Angeles. She died on April 5, 1907, after a brief battle with pneumonia, at the age of 68. Women in California gained the right to vote in 1911—just four years after her death.

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