Saving the lives of one billion people
By Doug Steele, Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
May 12, 2018
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Editor's note: It was a fortunate audience that heard this speech given by Doug Steele, Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, at the grand opening of the Agrilife Extension Office in Fannin County. Given the speech's mention of George Washington Carver, it seemed appropriate to publish during Black History Month and Dr. Steele was kind enough to accommodate by sending his speech and footnotes.


When I began to work on my graduate degree, I had a class that used “Diffusion of Innovation[i]” by Everett Rogers, a communications professor at the University of New Mexico, to outline societal change, from the innovators to the early adopters to the laggards.  He wrote about the value of Extension in reaching out to the innovators and early adopters, and finally the general population to introduce new and innovative agricultural practices across the country, once again in the role as change agents in the context of the greater society.


While it is true that most people never see or understand the difference they make, or sometimes only imagine their actions are having a positive effect, every single action a person takes can have far reaching consequences.


Norman Borlaug was ninety-one when he was informed that he had personally been responsible for saving the lives of over one billion people.  Dr. Borlaug is one of only 7 people in the world to have received the Noble Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Medal of Honor.


Norman Borlaug was an agronomist and plant breeder who hybridized corn and wheat for arid climates, disease resistance and dwarf characteristics so the plants would not be blown over by high winds. The Nobel committee, Fulbright Scholars, and many other experts calculated that all across the world – in Central and South America, Western Africa, across Europe and Asia, throughout the plains of Siberia, and America’s own desert Southwest – Borlaug’s work has saved from famine over one billion people . . . and the number is increasing every day.


For all the credit he’s received, which was earned and well deserved, maybe Borlaug was not the person who saved the one billion people.


I believe it was probably a man named Henry Wallace, who was vice president of the United States under Roosevelt, during his third term[ii].  Henry Wallace was a former secretary of agriculture.  The world’s largest agricultural experiment station located outside of Beltsville Maryland is named after Henry Wallace. He understood the need for people to have a safe and secure food supply.  As Vice President, he used his power to create a agricultural research station in Mexico whose sole purpose was to somehow hybridize corn and wheat for arid climates . . . and he hired a young scientist named Norman Borlaug to run it.  So, while Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize . . . maybe it was really Henry Wallace whose initial act was responsible for saving the one billion lives.


Now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t Henry Wallace who should’ve gotten the credit, maybe it was George Washington Carver who saved the one billion lives.


Carver, a renowned geneticist and botanist developed two hundred and sixty-six products from the peanut that we still use today.  And then there’s the sweet potato.  Eighty-eight uses he developed from it.  He also wrote an agricultural tract and promoted the idea of what he called a ‘victory garden’ to ease food shortages during world war.


What many people don’t know about George Washington Carver is that while he was nineteen he was the first African American student admitted to attend Iowa State University, but because he was black he was not allowed to live in the dorms.  He had a dairy sciences professor who greatly respected Carver and invited him to stay at his home while he was in college.  This professor allowed his own six-year-old boy to go on botanical expeditions every weekend with this brilliant student.  George Washington Carver[iii] took that little boy and directed his life during the three years he lived at their home.  And it was Carver who gave six-year-old Henry Wallace a vision about his future and what he could do with plants to help humanity.


But with all the time and effort and years that Carver spent on things like peanuts and sweet potatoes and victory gardens, isn’t it amazing that a few afternoons with a six-year-old boy named Henry Wallace turned out to make that much difference!


But maybe it was actually a farmer from Diamond, Missouri who saved one billion people. There was a farmer in Diamond, Missouri, named Moses, who had a wife named Susan[iv].  They lived in a slave state but didn’t believe in slavery.  They were known as ‘sympathizers’. One cold winter night Quantrill’s Raiders rode out of Arkansas and attacked Moses and Susan’s farm.  They burned the barn, shot several people, and dragged off a woman named Mary . . . who refused to let go of her infant son.


Mary was Susan’s best friend, so Moses sent out word immediately, trying to arrange a meeting with those cutthroats, trying to do something to get Mary and her baby back.  Within a few days, he had the meeting set; and so, on a bitter cold January night, Moses took a black horse and went several hours north to a crossroads in Kansas.


There he met four of Quantrill’s men and found out Mary had died from injuries sustained in the raid.  Moses traded his only horse, a black stallion, for what they threw him in a burlap bag. There in the freezing dark, with his breath’s vapor blowing hard and white from his mouth, Moses brought out of that burlap bag a cold, naked, almost dead black baby boy.  And he opened up his jacket and he opened up his shirts and placed that baby next to his skin.  Moses fastened that child in under his clothes and walked that baby back to Missouri!  Talking to that child every step of the way – telling the baby he would take care of him as his own . . . promising to educate him to honor Mary, his mother, to raise him as his own son.


That was the night that the farmer from Diamond Missouri told the baby he would give him his last name, and adopt him as his own son.  And that is how Moses and Susan Carver came to raise that little baby, George Washington Carver.  And if you go to Diamond Missouri today, there is a sign from the National Historic Registry, the recognizes the place where George Washington Carver was raised.


So there it is; it was obviously the farmer from Diamond, Missouri who saved those one billion people.


For the truth is, who really knows who it was whose single action saved the two billion people?  How far back could we go? And how far into the future could we go to show how many lives you will touch?  There are generations yet unborn, whose very lives will be shifted and shaped by the decisions you make and the actions you take . . . tonight.  And tomorrow.  And tomorrow night. And the next day.  And the next.  WE ALL have the power to be a positive influence on the world by our actions towards others, by becoming servant leaders and by realizing we can truly make a difference, one person at a time.


Doug Steele, Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

[i] Diffusion of Innovation, Everett Rogers

[ii] American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace, John C. Culver and John Hyde

[iii] George Washington Carver, William J. Federer

[iv] The Noticer, Andy Andrews