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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Sushruta, Ancient Indian Surgeon and Father of the Nose Job

If you were a petty criminal, a prisoner of war, or an adulterous woman in the ancient world, you might have had the tip of your nose cut off as a punishment [PDF]. But rather than walking around disfigured, if you had the means—and lived in ancient India—you might have had your nose reconstructed thanks to an ancient surgical method espoused by the Indian physician and surgeon Sushruta.

There's some debate around whether Sushruta was a real individual or a legendary figure. Said to have been the son of a sage who lived around 600 BCE, he's primarily known today for the classic treatise Sushruta Samhita, or Compendium of Sushruta. The treatise is considered one of the foremost achievements of Indian medicine, and went on to influence the West. Along with Charaka and Vagbhata—two other possibly legendary authors of key texts—Sushruta is honored in India as one of the "Triad of Ancients."

The Sushruta Samhita describes more than a thousand diseases (including a very early awareness of diabetes), and about 650 types of drugs. The text includes a special focus on surgery, which it considers the apex of the healing art. The roughly 300 surgical procedures it describes include cataract surgery, the removal of bladder stones, hernia repair, eye surgery, and Cesarean sections. The treatise also describes how to control bleeding, set broken bones, use wine and other drugs to anesthetize the patient, and employ large ants as wound clips (apparently, their strong mandibles can close a gash in lieu of stitches). The text also stresses the importance of cleanliness in both surgeons and their instruments—safeguards Europe wouldn’t adopt for the better part of two millennia.

But the most famous part of the text is its technique for repairing and recreating a nose, known today as reconstructive rhinoplasty. Sushruta recommended using a long, broad "leaf of a creeper" as a template for cutting a flap of skin from the cheek or forehead. After scarifying the flap with a knife, the skin was then placed over the missing nose, after which "the coolheaded physician should steadily tie it up with a bandage decent to look at," the text says. Two small pipes—reeds or tubes from the castor oil plant—were inserted into the nostrils to facilitate breathing. The nose was then dusted with medicinal powders, enveloped in cotton, and sprinkled with sesame oil.

An 1816 image from a nose surgery using the Indian method
An image from J.C. Carpue's "An account of two successful operations for restoring a lost nose," 1816

Sushruta’s knowledge took a long time traveling west. The Sushruta Samhita was translated into Arabic around the 8th century CE, and that version may have arrived in Europe before the Renaissance; Sushruta’s techniques were apparently known to surgeons in Italy in the 1400s and 1500s. The Indian method for repairing a nose was then lost to Western medicine for a couple of hundred years, although of course Indian surgeons continued to practice it.

Then, in 1793, two British surgeons observed the procedure being carried out on a cart driver who had been taken prisoner by a sultan in the Third Anglo-Mysore war, and an acquaintance of theirs published an account of the surgery in London's Gentleman's Magazine the following year. A British surgeon named Joseph Constantine Carpue read about the procedure, and practiced it on cadavers for 20 years before performing the operation (successfully) on a patient in 1814. His subsequent publication popularized the procedure in Europe, and by the 1830s the technique had made it to the United States.

Sushruta is widely honored in India today. The country boasts several statues of him, and his image is on the seal of the Association of Plastic Surgeons of India. A version of his procedure, often called the Indian method, is still one of the preferred ways of repairing noses around the world.

John Tradescant, Royal Gardener and Forefather of the Natural History Museum

Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Alamy

Two ribs of a whale, a dragon’s egg, the hand of a mermaid, and a picture made entirely from feathers: These were just a few of the items displayed at the curiosities museum that John Tradescant the Elder opened around 1630.

Tradescant is best known for two accomplishments: being the forefather of the modern English garden, and opening the first public museum. He collected seeds and plant samples on his extensive travels, then incorporated these flowers into the envy-inspiring gardens he was hired to create for the British nobility. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment on its own, but Tradescant is also remembered for his cabinet of curiosities, which eventually grew to become the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England.

Not much is known about the Tradescant the Elder’s early years. Thought to have been born around 1570, he made his first mark in the historical record when he married in 1607. Two years later, he was appointed gardener to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury. Tradescant continued to work for the Cecil family for about six years, then took a job with Edward, Lord Wotton, for another eight years. Lord Wotton released him for two major collecting journeys: one as part of a diplomatic mission to the Russian Arctic in 1618, which resulted in him introducing the larch tree, a valuable timber source, to England; and one as part of a 1621 expedition against Algerian pirates. Although the mission failed to do much about the pirates, Tradescant did succeed in bringing back samples of gladioli, wild pomegranate, and Syringa persica—better known as lilac, which became a favorite in English gardens.

Tradescant then served George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, for five years, before the duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army officer and King Charles I himself summoned Tradescant's services. The king appointed Tradescant the Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by his queen, Henrietta Maria. Tradescant would become celebrated as the gardener to the "Rose and Lily Queen."

On Tradescant's travels, he tended to favor trees and flowers that looked interesting above those with a pleasant aroma, since he had no sense of smell. From his trips to France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, he returned with tulips, anemones, irises, clematis vines, and poppies. He also began actively seeking out curiosities, such as "a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree," and "the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone," according to one 1638 accounting of his collection. (He also collected what we might today consider more run-of-the-mill cultural artifacts, like clothing and weapons.) Aside from his own collecting, he contacted British trading ships and asked merchants and diplomats around the world to find him “All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve.”

Tradescant first began displaying his collection of oddities—fondly known as The Ark—at his home in Lambeth, London in 1628. The museum was a chance for Londoners to see creatures previously unknown to them—animals like salamanders and pelicans were on view—and to touch fantastic relics, such as wood that supposedly came from the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Like other cabinets of curiosity of its era, it combined scientific curiosities and mythological artifacts without strict organizing principles: A brightly colored parrot might be displayed next to a gourd, a precious coin, and some artistically arranged shells. At some point, the collection also incorporated a dodo, described in a 1656 accounting as being a “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big." (While most of the specimen was disposed of due to rot in the mid-18th century, the head—now the only soft tissue dodo specimen known to exist—and several other parts of the specimen are currently in the collection of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.)

Tradescant charged visitors sixpence to view his curiosities, which became one of London's most popular and famous attractions for nearly half a century (it was especially popular with schoolchildren). One early visitor praised it as a place "where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell."

Although the museum was a success, it was not a full-time project. Tradescant also continued to garden for nobility until his death in 1638; his last project, undertaken a year before he died, was a Physic Garden for herbal remedies at Oxford.

Tradescant is called the "Elder" because he also had a well-known son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662), who carried on his work. The younger botanist also gardened for nobles, traveled the world, and collected both plants and curiosities. In 1638, he assumed his father’s title as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. All the while he kept collecting, adding to the Tradescant legacy.

Tradescant the Younger had a son he hoped would carry on the family tradition, but his heir died at 19. Heartbroken, he deeded the collection to a friend and antiques aficionado, Elias Ashmole. It was a decision they came to regret after a variety of squabbles and a court case, which upheld Ashmole's right to the collection. Ashmole paid for and helped compile a catalog of the Tradescant objects in 1656, the first printed catalog of a museum collection in England.

Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Alamy

Ashmole donated the Tradescant curiosities to his old school, the University of Oxford, in the 1670s, alongside some items he had acquired himself. The museum built to exhibit the whole collection officially opened in June 1683, and remains open today.

But it's not the only museum inspired by the work of the Tradescants. The church where the Tradescants (both Elder and Younger) are buried is now known as the Museum of Garden History; it was initially created to preserve the their magnificent tomb. Carved with images from their travels and collections, it incorporates a long epitaph attributed to John Aubrey that describes their curiosities as "a world of wonders in one closet shut."

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