A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Frederick D. Patterson

Feb. 23, 2023

When one explores Black contributions to microbiology, there is a resounding void. Black people were enslaved in the United States, from 1619 to Emancipation in 1863, and during this time education was prohibited. Following emancipation, the few segregated and unequal educational opportunities were inaccessible to nearly all Black people due to vestiges of slavery and legally supported Jim Crow laws.

Though very small in numbers, the number of Black M.D.s was increasing during this time. The possibility of earning an M.D. might have been easier because physicians were needed to attend to Black patients whom white physicians refused to treat. Meanwhile, the infinitesimal number of Black scientists who matriculated in adversarial environments and earned microbiology Ph.D.s continued to be denied further research exploration. As a result, the U.S. missed the opportunity to benefit from unknown discovery possibilities, and Black people were denied fulfillment that an education could have provided.

In 1997, ASM News published a full-length article, “Ethnic Diversity in ASM,” in recognition of Black History Month. This article, which identified the first 12 Black scientists to receive a Ph.D. in microbiology (1932 -1948), was the first time a preponderance of information on the contributions of Black scientists to ASM, and the field of microbiology as a whole, was authenticated. As such, many conducted additional research and published subsequent, and more detailed, articles on the subject. More importantly, heretofore unrecognized Black microbiologists, including William Hinton, Ruth E. Moore and Hildrous Poindexter, were formally honored with named scholarships and awards by organizations and their alma maters; they have assumed their rightful places in history.

Furthermore, as early as 1986, ASM Black microbiologists paid tribute to Moore (1903-1994) and Poindexter (1901-1987) in a non-sponsored ASM setting during ASM’s General Meeting (now know as ASM Microbe) in Washington, D.C. While ASM was not amenable to covering these expenses, Black members persisted and covered expenses to ensure that these outstanding scientists were recognized by their peers, prior to their deaths.

However, Frederick Douglass Patterson (1901-1988), who founded the School of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee Institute, accelerated the transformation of Tuskegee Institute to Tuskegee University and is considered a giant in higher education, has not been well recognized in this manner across the microbiology profession. Given Patterson’s status, as the 3rd Black person to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology, it is fitting that he should also be recognized by ASM.

Educational Background

By the age of 34, Patterson had sought and earned 4 degrees, which aided in his significant contributions to the educational field. In 1923, he earned the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree from the University of Iowa. Following his DVM training, he accepted a teaching position at Virginia State University (VSU), a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), where he developed a private veterinary practice and taught a variety of courses, including bacteriology and chemistry.

Still, some of his experiences led him to believe he could benefit from additional training. In 1926, when the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation offered him a fellowship to pursue a M.S. at Iowa State, he continued his education. There, he investigated the etiology of range paralysis in poultry, also known as neurolymphomatosis gallinarum. This article represents the first time that Patterson’s research publications have been disclosed. Patterson graduated with his M.S. in 1927, then returned to VSU.

Frederick Patterson with George Washington Carver.
Frederick Patterson with George Washington Carver.
Source: blackoutloud

Immediately following Patterson’s return to VSU in 1927, he was offered a job at Tuskegee Institute (TI) (now Tuskegee University, (TU)), an HBCU, to teach veterinary science and bacteriology. He was excited about this offer because of TI's outstanding reputation and readily accepted it.

Patterson was honored to join TI, where well-known scientist, George Washington Carver (1862-1943), the "Peanut Man," made many discoveries and applications. His teaching responsibilities were similar to those at VSU, and he routinely enjoyed scheduled walks and conversations where Carver would educate him about botanicals surrounding the campus. In 1931, the General Board provided Patterson another fellowship, this time to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell, where Patterson investigated a parasitic disease that, at the time, caused extensive damage to poultry populations throughout the U.S. From this research, Patterson wrote and published a number of peer-reviewed articles, including “Viability of Coccidial Oocysts” and “Cross Infection Experiments with Coccidia of Birds” (not available online). Patterson earned his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1933.

Professional Contributions

Upon Patterson’s return to TI after the publication of his Ph.D. thesis, there is no evidence of further research engagement, but one assumes that many agricultural microbiological studies were investigated as he built TI’s veterinarian program. A year later, Patterson was appointed director of the department of agriculture, after the sudden death of the previous director. While Patterson was initially unprepared for the plant side of agriculture, he hired expert agricultural staff who filled that void.

Founding Tuskegee Institute’s School of Veterinary Medicine

By 1935, at the age of 34, Patterson was inaugurated as the third president of TI. Patterson also accelerated the transformation of Tuskegee Institute into Tuskegee University and, in 1944, founded TI’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Today, TU is the only HBCU that offers a DVM, and nearly 75% of Black veterinarians in America are TU graduates.

Spearheading Tuskegee University’s Engineering and Commercial Aviation Programs

In addition to this pivotal contribution, during the next 2 decades, Patterson also spearheaded TU’s engineering and commercial aviation programs, which facilitated the initiation of the famed Black Tuskegee Airmen of the World War II Army Corps. The Tuskegee Airmen gained notoriety when, after nearly 1,000 trained at TU, half went overseas as combat pilots, and not 1 bomber was lost to enemy planes during 1,500 missions. This feat contributed significantly to the eventual desegregation of the U.S. military, and apparently, Patterson’s vision to make this happen did not go unnoticed.

Founding the United Negro College Fund (UNCF)

Patterson’s most significant contribution—because it positively impacted the lives of so many Black people—is his envisioning and founding of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in 1945. UNCF’s iconic motto, “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” remains an indelible phrase in the fabric of our nation to encourage and support those who lack educational and training resources.

Patterson’s Childhood and Upbringing

Perhaps Patterson’s success can be attributed to Booker T. Washington, a Black educator, author, orator and advisor to several presidents of that era. Formerly enslaved, the founder of TI—who served as TI’s first president—Washington lived, understood and shared Patterson’s vision. The contributions of both Washington and Patterson suggest the absence of barriers and resistance at TI, which might have occurred at times at other HBCUs (with the exception of Bethune-Cookman University) that were founded by white individuals, missionaries and organizations, who also served as presidents of these institutions. Patterson was also inspired by his namesake, formerly enslaved and great orator Frederick Douglass, who served as a role model for Patterson's pursuit and success in advancing change.

Patterson portrait from the National Portrait Gallery.
Patterson portrait from the National Portrait Gallery.
Source: Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Harmon Foundation

Patterson’s family was educated and lived a middle-class life in Washington, D.C.’s then-affluent Anacostia neighborhood. As a tribute to Patterson, his personal and professional papers are housed at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. Orphaned at the age of 2, Patterson was the youngest of 6 and was raised by various family members, but predominantly by his sister. Throughout his life he had the strong support of his extended family and the unmitigated admiration of his extended community. Growing up in a supportive family, he was able to flourish, and though his experience at Iowa State began with at least one racist experience, he quickly learned how to resist racism by developing one of his favorite quotes: “How people feel about you reflects the way you permit yourself to be treated.”

Patterson was married to Catherine Moton (daughter of the second president of TI, Robert Moton) for 53 years until his death in 1988; and they had 1 son. Thus, he enjoyed the faithful support of a partner who also shared his vision.

Awards and Honors

Patterson’s contributions to higher education, as well as his contributions to the U.S. agricultural system, have been documented and honored. He was a member of President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education and helped write the 1947 report that aided the reorganization of higher education in the U.S.

In 1987, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded by President Ronald Reagan, in recognition of his lifetime of leadership and success in the educational field. This award is the nation’s highest civilian honor, and with this conferral, Patterson joined the ranks of Nobel Laureates John Enders (1897-1985) and Joshua Lederberg (1925-2008), who were awarded the medal in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, and in 2006 by President George W. Bush, respectively. The only other microbiologist who has received this award is infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, also by President George W. Bush. However, Fauci trained as an M.D. and did not earn a Ph.D. in microbiology.

By the time of Patterson’s death in 1988, he received many additional honors, notably for his influence on TU, civil rights activism, contributions to higher education and, in particular, Black education. These contributions also included the founding and building of UNCF, calling for improvements to agriculture and facilitation of the evolution of the Tuskegee Airmen. His autobiography, Chronicles of Faith: The Autobiography of Frederick D. Patterson, edited by M.G. Goodson, was published by the University of Alabama Press in 1991.

In 1996, another honor by UNCF, the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute (FDPRI), was established. The FDPRI is the nation’s foremost research organization focusing on the educational status of Black youth from pre-school through college. Because of the significance of Patterson’s contributions to U.S. history, his papers have been collected and catalogued at the Library of Congress.

As the third Black scholar to receive a Ph.D. in microbiology, Patterson has not yet been recognized within ASM and the profession. Though his microbiological research was brief, his extraordinary contributions as a higher education and civil rights leader, organizer and intellectual giant no doubt played a role, and continue to play a role, in subsequent and future generations of Ph.D.-level microbiologists. Patterson's Ph.D. microbiology training inevitably provided the methodical and query-based skills and incentives that contributed to his life-long and exceptional laudatory contributions in promoting "A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste."

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Author: Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D.

Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D.
Marian Johnson-Thompson, Ph.D. is Professor Emerita of Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).