By Nathan Mayberg
LOCH SHELDRAKE February 24, 2004 Dr. Emmett Bassett is one of the few men living today who worked with world-famous inventor and scientist George Washington Carver.
On Saturday, Bassett was honored with a Life Achievement Award at the First Annual Black History Program and African American Health Fair at Sullivan County Community College.
The event was organized by Debora Hall of the Catskill Regional Medical Center, Caroline Massey of Hudson Health Services, and Ida Crawford and Esther Harris of the Sullivan County NAACP.
Bassett was born in 1921 in Virginia. His father died when he was 14. This led the tall and athletic young man to drop out of sports and take over the familys 100-acre farm. The doctor excelled in his studies, although he called it "a tough job to get an education" from the segregated schools he attended.
"Most teachers didnt last the whole year," he remarked.
Even so, he was promoted a couple grades ahead of his peers, due to his intelligence and work habits. Upon graduating high school, he attended the famous Tuskegee Institute. The university was founded by the great African-American leader Booker T. Washington at the end of the 19th century.
"They emphasized pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps," Bassett said of the college.
While attending school, Bassett milked 21 cows in the morning and evening so he could pay for his studies. He also received a scholarship through the National Youth Administration, set up by President Franklin Roosevelt.
It was at Tuskegee that Bassett met and worked with Carver. Bassett dealt with the more than 300 peanut butter products Carver produced with his invention of peanut butter. He learned from Carvers work on finding a substitute for burlap a rough string used on boats in short supply during World War II and to clean guns.
He worked with Carver on turning motor oil into paint and creating useful products from plants and potatoes. Bassett even used to take many curious visitors on tours around the labs of Carver.
Bassett stated that Carver was not interested in money.
"He didnt cash checks," he said.
Indeed, Carver turned down several $100,000-a-year jobs, which would be more than ten million dollars today. Carver only benefited from three patents but invented instant coffee, shaving cream, shoe polish, mayonnaise, synthetic rubber and many other products. He gave away most of his inventions, said Bassett.
Carver died in 1943, a year after after Bassett graduated from Tuskegee with a degree in Agricultural Studies.
Bassett was drafted into the United States Armys Quartermaster Corps in 1942. His unit worked to supply the army with tools, goods, clothes, and whatever else they needed. His unit spent three months in Belgium before Germany surrendered.
After the war ended, he attended graduate school at the University of Massachusetts. He received his masters degree in Dairy Science from there. He then attended CUNY Manhattan just to brush up on chemistry, biology and physics. He said people told him "not to put that on his resume because of all the communists there."
From there, he got a job as a dairy chemist, but that lasted only one year. He was accepted at Ohio State University, where he completed his doctorate in dairy technology.
Ohio State lists him as the first African-American to get a doctorate in dairy technology.
He received several job offers but was turned down when the businesses discovered he was not white.
Eventually, he found a job at Columbia University Medical College, where he conducted research and served as an assistant professor for seven years. He published about 4-5 publications a year.
He later left and worked with Johnson and Johnson as a senior scientist. It was at the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry that Bassett finally settled down. For 18 years, he taught microbiology and researched protein chemistry, publishing several works.
He lived in Long Island for a while but said, "You cant bet on anything on the Long Island Expressway." So he, along with his wife Prescilla and three children, moved full-time to Grahamsville.
He is now a member of the Ellenville NAACP and the Association to Study African-American Life.
One of the most pressing issues facing the African-American community, in his view, is education.
"Something needs to be done [to educate] young kids," he adds.
And thats his focus these days. As his daughter Lydia says of him, hes "father of the year every year."