Students and teachers of African-American history are most assuredly aware of the work of the eminent Dr. George Washington Carver, but they are probably less informed about his able assistant, Dr. Austin Curtis Jr.

For eight years, from 1935 to 1943, Curtis worked side by side with Carver as they conducted research on peanut products and sweet potato starch. His background and knowledge in the chemistry of soil abetted Carver’s genius, and they in tandem gave Tuskegee Institute, where they taught and worked, national recognition.

Born in Institute, W.Va in 1911, Curtis’ love and connection to the Earth was natural since his father was a highly respected gardener. That he would go on to major in agriculture at North Carolina A&T at Greensboro and graduate in 1899 were expected outcomes. He also earned his master’s degree from the institution.

During the summer months in his final years at the school, he worked at Cornell University, improving his understanding of the soil and its various nutrients. With a freshly minted degree, he was offered a position at N.C. A&T as a professor of agriculture. He immediately revamped the program. In fact, it was often said that the department didn’t really exist until his arrival.

Among the many advances under his tutelage were the introduction of new crops, tile drainage, use of lime and the marked improvement in the fertility of the soil. Soon, under his guidance, infertile land that once yielded fewer than 15 bushels of corn was producing 70 to 80 bushels per acre. Clover that could not grow was soon yielding three tons per acre.

Curtis might have labored in relative obscurity if not given a chance to share his experience and research with Carver. They worked so well together that Carver said Curtis was more like a son to him than an assistant. He so respected Curtis that he renamed one of his famous inventions, Dr. George Washington Carver Rubbing Oil, after him.

According to a website dedicated to the two scientists, “In 1943, Carver died and Curtis helped to establish the George Washington Carver Research Foundation and the Carver Museum at Tuskegee Institute. Curtis moved to Detroit in 1944 to organize Curtis Laboratories and created 60 different products made from natural and organic sources. (There is some dispute over Curtis’s separation from Tuskegee Institute, about whether he was fired or resigned.)

“In 1999, Dr. A.W. Curtis turned over the ownership and manufacturing rights of his work with Dr. George Washington Carver to the Rev. Bennie L. Thayer, chairman of the board for Natural Health Options. In 2000, Thayer turned over manufacturing and ownership of Curtis Products to Dr. E. Faye Williams, the current owner.”

For several years on Detroit’s west side on Six Mile Road, there was a museum named in honor of Curtis, but the items and documents are not stored at the Charles Wright Museum of African-American History. The museum also featured Curtis’ various research and products related to hair and skin care. For many years, his rubbing oil was very popular in the Black community among elders who swore by its healing and therapeutic benefits.

In 1905, Curtis married Dora Thorne Brown, who was an accomplished teacher. They had two children, Alice Cabell Curtis and Austin Wingate Jr.

Among the secret and benevolent orders, he belonged to the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, of which he was a provincial grand master of West Virginia. In politics, he was, as so many Black Americans of the day, a Republican, and in religion he was a Methodist.

Curtis was a trustee at his local church and was formerly superintendent of the Sunday school. He was a life member of the Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, and also a life member of the association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by Dr. Carter Woodson. In 1917 and 1918, he was president of the West Virginia Teachers Association.

There are conflicting reports about Curtis’ death in 2003, with one reporting he died at home in Detroit and another claiming that he died at his daughter’s home in California. Whatever the case, the world lost one of its pre-eminent scientists, who even as he worked in the shadow of the esteemed Carver, he was creating his own unique niche, developing his own scientific achievements that are in many cases more than comparable to his mentor’s. At his death, there were reports that he was working on a biography of Carver.

They may have called him “Baby Carver,” but he was also “Mr. Curtis” with his own claim to fame.

Caveat: We should note that Curtis should not be confused with Dr. Austin Maurice Curtis Sr., a contemporary of his and equally acclaimed as a doctor of surgery at Howard University for 25 years. Maybe in the future we will find time and space for a profile on this remarkable man.