Plant Scientist Remembers Academic Rigor, Racial Acceptance, Friends at WSU
It’s a long way from Dog Bog, Miss., to the halls of a prestigious institution such as Howard University. Emeritus Professor of Biology Lafayette Frederick credits part of his success on that journey to his time earning a Ph.D. at Washington State University.
Following in the footsteps of renowned botanist and plant chemist, Dr. George Washington Carver, Frederick became intensely interested in plants at a young age. That interest turned into a lifelong career.
He earned his bachelor’s degree at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1943, did graduate work at the University of Hawaii and earned his master’s of science degree in botany at the University of Rhode Island in 1950.
It was the winter of 1949 while earning his master’s degree at URI that Frederick attended a professional meeting in New York City and heard a paper on downy mildew by then-WSU Professor Gardener Shaw. “I immediately decided to apply to WSU to see if I might be able to work with him,” Frederick said.
He also applied to Michigan State University, “but my preference was WSU because of Dr. Shaw,” Frederick said. “I received a letter from MSU, but didn’t respond immediately, and it’s a good thing I didn’t. The next day I received a telegram from WSU asking me to come earn my Ph.D.” Even though, the invitation was to work with Dr. Seth Locke on crown gall, Frederick accepted and came to WSU.
In Pullman, he found a rigorous academic program, a surprisingly diverse cadre of fellow graduate students and a community of peers who in many cases became lifelong friends.
“I remember Dr. Brewer was one of my favorite professors. He presented the information very clearly, but gave very challenging exams. The test was a series of objective questions, and you could bring in any material you wanted, but even then it was very challenging,” Frederick said. “You had to evaluate which was the ‘best’ statement, the ‘next best’ and the wrong statement.”
But graduate school wasn’t all work. Frederick and his wife, Ann, have fond memories of the bi-weekly parties department chair George Fischer and his wife Geneva would hold for faculty and graduate students.
“Dr. Fischer and his wife lived out in the country,” Frederick remembered. “Every two weeks, he would invite all of the faculty members and graduate students in the department for inner and square dancing. I fostered an excellent relationship among the entire department.”
The Fischers also kept a large garden. “They always had a lot of produce,” Frederick said, “and they would invite graduate students and their families to pick carrots, beets, cabbage, tomatoes, everything. That helped us survive.”
That sense of community was color-blind, Frederick said, at a time when that wasn’t always the case.
“Quite frankly, I had wondered how well a minority graduate student might be received at WSU,” he said. “But the whole social and cultural scene here at WSU was very congenial, even in 1950. We were quite a diverse group, with students from China, Korea and various parts of the United States.”
After graduation, Frederick went on to become member of the biology department faculty at Southern University in Baton Rouge, chair of the Department of Biology at Atlanta University in Georgia, and then ultimately to chair the Department of Botany at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he retired in 1993. He was a prolific scholar with dozens of refereed journal articles, many on the induction of Dutch Elm Disease, book chapters and the discovery of new species of fungi.
As for being a Coug, Frederick simply says, “I have always prized it very highly.”