Photo: Jason Varney Photography
Lafayette Frederick was born in Dog Bog, Mississippi, and grew up with five brothers and sisters on a cotton farm in Missouri, where his sharecropper father taught him and other local kids in a one-room schoolhouse that doubled as a church. Working on the farm, Frederick became deeply interested in agriculture. He remembers studying flower structure in a biology textbook, then finding he could learn more by just taking apart a flower from the family's garden.
Fascinated by the work of Tuskegee University alumnus George Washington Carver, Frederick went at the age of 16 to the traditionally African-American university and pursued a BS degree in technical agriculture. Here, Frederick met mentors such as Harold Romm, who introduced him to the study of botany.
Anticipating the military draft for World War II, Frederick moved to Washington State with friends and was able to parlay his skills into work as an electrician's assistant, an unusual white-collar job for an African American at that time. He entered the Navy in 1944, and was posted to Pearl Harbor where he worked as an architectural draftsman. By the time the war ended and Frederick could use the GI bill to pay for graduate school, studying botany was no longer an obvious first choice. But his first passion prevailed, and Frederick stayed on to study native plants at the University of Hawaii. He then completed a master's degree with a project on Dutch elm disease at what is now the University of Rhode Island and received his PhD in plant pathology at what is now Washington State University
Romm recruited Frederick to the biology department at Southern University in Louisiana, where Frederick developed a botany concentration during his 10 years at the school. He did the same at Atlanta University, where he chaired the biology department during his 14-year tenure. In 1976, Frederick came to Howard University in Washington, DC, where he chaired the botany department and is now professor emeritus.
As an African-American scientist, Frederick had to break significant barriers to end up where he is today. "I'd go to meetings, there would be hardly any blacks there. I wanted to change that situation." In 1958, Frederick was responsible for integrating the Association of Southeastern Biologists meeting, which had not allowed its African American members to attend.
Since his days at Southern, Frederick has worked to get black students excited about making new discoveries, an effort that includes taking students to scientific conferences. He once drove a car full of students from Atlanta to a conference in Alberta, Canada. "Some of my colleagues at other schools asked, 'Haven't you ever heard of airplanes?' I said, sure I've heard of airplanes, but if I come by airplane I can't bring the students."
Frederick is still in touch with more than 40 of his former students, and quite a few have gone onto successful careers of their own in plant biology. In 1991, the American Association for the Advancement of Science recognized his tireless efforts in guiding young black scientists by presenting him with the AAAS Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement.
At age 82, Frederick still conducts research on Dutch elm disease and lives with his wife of more than 50 years and one of their ten grandchildren outside Washington, DC.