Gregor Mendel 1822 - 1884
The story of Gregor Mendel is aggravating. It makes you wonder what
might have been, had this Austrian monk encountered Charles Darwin, and had
his discoveries become known to the disciples (and opponents) of Darwinism
early on (see 10/14/2003 headline).
Though the two men may have come within 20 miles of each other one day,
historians are fairly certain that Darwin was unaware of Mendel, though
Mendel knew of Darwin. Mendel believed that the laws of genetics he
deduced just seven years after Darwins Origin of Species was published
posed a serious challenge to the theory of transformism (that
one species can be transformed into another). It is also aggravating,
in retrospect, to see how Mendels discoveries were treated once they
did become known. Ignored is the word most often used in
history books to describe the early reception of his paper. As we
shall see, nearly 72 years went by before it was no longer possible to
ignore Mendels findings. By then (the 1930s), Darwinism had
triumphed in the Scopes Trial, had a full head of steam and was
unstoppable. It just became a matter of fudging Darwinism enough
to massage Mendelian genetics into it. These days, the neo-Darwinists
tend to claim Mendel as their own, but the evidence shows that the
creationist monk would have been offended by any such association.
Nigel Williams, writing in the October 14, 2003 issue of Current Biology, stated
that Once Gregor Mendel is placed back into the intellectual
landscape that he would himself recognize, it was clear that he
would have seen The Origin of Species as a challenge to his own
Gregor Mendel, a Catholic creationist, believed he had demonstrated
that species are resistant to change, because characters are inherited
without alteration throughout generations. This was a novel idea
to breeders of the day. No one knew just how characteristics were
inherited. Common experience showed that children resembled their
parents, but how did the various traits get sorted out in the union of
sperm and egg? Why were some crosses of plants or livestock sterile,
and others fertile? Darwin toyed with an hypothesis he called
pangenesis, which assumed that traits from all over the body somehow
flow into the gametes. A common misconception of the time was that traits
were blended in the offspring, rather than remaining discrete units
(by analogy, compare mixing two fluids versus mixing two jars of colored
marbles). Darwins theory demanded that variations be heritable,
and that traits be fluid enough to evolve so that they could be acted
on by natural selection. If the traits remain unchanged, like
the colored marbles, how could new variation arise? Each generation
would just get a different ratio of static, unchanging characteristics.
Working in the gardens of the Monastery of St. Thomas in Brunn, Austria,
Gregor Mendel demonstrated exemplary scientific technique. His work is
often cited as a textbook example of the experimental method.
It required patience, attention to detail, careful record keeping,
and interpretive insight. In a project spanning ten years,
Mendel crossed 28,000 plants of the common garden pea, Pisum, and
charted the inheritance of seven selected traits:
He chose peas as his subjects because they have a short season, are easily
pollinated, have clearly recognizable traits and can be protected from cross
pollination. He spent the first two years carefully breeding pure
stock that were true to type, then spent eight more years cross-pollinating
the types and counting the traits found in the offspring. His procedural
diligence and accurate record-keeping were unexcelled, but even more
important, he had a goal, executed a plan, and understood the results.
Mendel found principles of inheritance that made testable predictions,
and formulated them in mathematical terms. Without knowing about
chromosomes or the details of cell division, he had found the laws of genetics.
- seed texture (wrinkled or smooth)
- albumen color (yellow, orange or green)
seed coat color (green or yellow)
- pod form (inflated or deflated)
- pod color (yellow to green)
flower position (axial or terminal)
- stem length (6 ft or taller vs. 1 foot or shorter)
The three laws Mendel deduced seem common-sense now, but were radically new
in his day:
Beyond the mere statement of these principles, Mendel invented terminology
that made future work productive. He used capital letters for
dominant traits, and lower-case letters for recessive traits. Let
A represent the dominant trait for smooth seed coat, for instance, and
a represent the recessive trait for wrinkled coat. If
an AA plant is cross-bred with an aa plant, according to Law 1, each
plant will contribute one allele via either pollen (male) or ovum
(female). The offspring could, therefore, be AA, Aa, aA, or aa.
According to Law 2, what the botanist will observe is three plants with
smooth seeds (AA, Aa, aA), and one with wrinkled, in a 3:1 ratio, but the
actual genetic ratio is 1:2:1. One will be homozygous dominant (AA),
two will be heterozygous dominant (Aa, aA), and one will be homozygous
recessive (aa). Its in the third generation where things get
interesting. Let the two heterozygous plants (Aa and aA) be crossed,
and if enough experiments are done, they will again sort into AA, Aa, aA,
and aa (1:2:1). But what the botanist will have observed, counter
to intuition, is two smooth-seed plants breeding, and one-fourth of them
coming out with wrinkled seeds! Mendel had the insight to see what
this meant: the recessive traits were always present, and their alleles
were being faithfully transmitted through three generations without
- Law of Paired Factors (Genes): Traits come in pairs (alleles), and
each parent contributes just one of the alleles. A trait, such as
seed coat color, is contributed by both parents: i.e., it is not one sex
that determines seed color; the egg and the sperm both contribute half
of any given trait. (Some traits, of course, are sex-linked traits,
such as those on the Y chromosome in mammals.)
- Law of Dominance: In a pair of genes (genotype), one allele will dominate
the other and control the outward appearance (phenotype). Mendel
invented the terms dominant and recessive to explain this law. For
instance, smooth is dominant over wrinkled; if an offspring has one allele
for smooth and one for wrinkled, the resulting offsprings seeds will
appear smooth, even though an allele for the wrinkled trait is present in
- Law of Segregation: Traits are inherited independently. A seed
can be wrinkled and yellow, wrinkled and green, smooth and yellow, or
smooth and green. The traits are sorted independently, by chance,
into the offspring, but enough trials will show they obey mathematical
ratios. (Later geneticists found that some traits are linked and
Mendels laws can be extended to calculate expected ratios for
combinations of traits. Let Bb, for instance, indicate dominant
and recessive alleles for seed color. If AABB is crossed with aabb,
then according to Law 3 (independent assortment), the offspring might be
AABB, AABb, AAbB, AAbb, AaBB, aABB, aaBB, and so forth. This can
get confusing, but makes sense when put into a diagram called a
Punnet Square, with one trait on the vertical axis and one on the
horizontal, and all the assorted mixtures shown in the boxes.
The main point is that each trait (seed texture and seed color) is
inherited independently of the other, and the ratios follow mathematical
laws. Most important, the traits pass unchanged throughout
generations. These findings spelled the end of speculations,
shared by Darwin and most others, about blending inheritance.
Mendels epochal paper, Experiments in Plant Hybridization,
completed in 1865 and published in 1866, is a long and detailed analysis
that stands as a monument to quality scientific investigation.
It is now available in English on the internet. With good scientific
caution, Mendel avoided overinterpretation. He said, It must,
nevertheless, not be forgotten that the explanation here attempted is
based on a mere hypothesis, only supported by the very imperfect result
of the experiment just described. He encouraged others to perform
additional experiments, but in the years since, it has been difficult
for anyone to match his high standards.
So why was this important paper ignored? An excuse is often given that
it was published in an obscure Austrian journal, but this is insufficient.
attempted to make it known by sending copies to prominent scientists.
To Carl Nageli, for instance, called a celebrated botanist and
authority on evolution in the anthology Great Experiments in Biology
(Prentice-Hall, 1955), Mendel wrote in 1867, I have never observed
gradual transitions between parental characters or a progressive approach
toward one of them. He defended his laws as being based on
experiment, avoiding any philosophical speculations. But he knew
the import of his laws. At the end of his great paper, he
commented on the work of a predecessor, which his work corroborated:
Gartner, by the results of these transformation
experiments [i.e., attempting to change one species into another], was led
to oppose the opinion of those naturalists who dispute the stability of
plant species and believe in a continuous evolution of vegetation.
He perceives in the complete transformation of one species into another
an indubitable proof that species are fixed with limits beyond which they
cannot change. Although this opinion cannot be unconditionally
accepted we find on the other hand in Gartners experiments a noteworthy
confirmation of that supposition regarding variability of cultivated
plants which has already been expressed.
Mendel listed some of the species Gartner experimented on. The
final sentence of his paper states, hybrids between these species
lost none of their stability after 4 or 5 generations. In a day
where Darwinism was sweeping the intellectual world in Britain and
spreading to the continent, Mendels words quoted above seem intended as a
clarion call to observation over speculation. He seems to be shouting,
in his own gentle way, Species do not transform
one into the other. They show stability from generation to generation,
and my experiments demonstrate that fact.
Isnt anyone listening?
It can only be assumed that they were not listening. Inebriated on
the elixir of a naturalistic mechanism for transformism, what use did
they have for a few uncomfortable facts printed by a monk in Austria?
work was available for study by anyone who cared to look, but it was
virtually forgotten till 1901. Back in 1865,
a new day was dawning, a day that liberated science from its hard slavery
to experiment. Mendel belonged to the old school of scientists that
believed in the experimental method. But now, storytellers were
free to speculate wildly about the unobservable past and future and
call it science.
Gregor Mendels life shows that a devoutly religious person, who has
devoted his life to his beliefs, can also be interested in science and
contribute to scientific discovery in a profound way. He probably
gained his interest in science, and appreciation for the rigor of
experimentation, while a student under Christian Doppler (for whom the
Doppler Effect is named). Although Mendel is best known for his
work on heredity, he also was interested in meteorology and astronomy.
Dan Graves in Scientists of Faith provides a good synopsis of the life of
Mendel, including many interesting facets before and after his work on
garden peas. While it can be safely assumed Mendel was a learned man,
had a penchant for detail, and was patient and persistent by nature,
he also had a heart for people. He could be easily overwhelmed
in his empathy for others. He never lived to see, however, his
scientific work taken seriously. Thirty-five years would pass
before its rediscovery.
In 1901, Hugo De Vries, among others,
found Mendels paper and was immediately
impressed. He shared it with a number of important biologists.
He seemed to realize, also, that it posed a challenge to Darwins
theory of natural selection, by ostensibly not providing the variation
needed on which selection could act. His oft-quoted remark,
natural selection can explain the survival of the fittest, but
not the arrival of the fittest, encapsulates the problem.
During the first few decades of the 20th century, evolutionary theory
was in a malaise. Mendels Laws were now acknowledged,
but evolutionists were not quite sure what to make of them.
Another 37 years would pass before the evolutionists seriously
made an attempt to bring Mendel and Darwin together. Meanwhile,
the Scopes Trial of 1925 convinced most in the news media and popular
culture that Darwinism had triumphed over religious
In the 1930s, geneticists attempted to scale
the hurdle Mendel had erected. According to De Vries, genetic mutations
provided the variation needed for evolution, and the new theory
basically assumed mutations provided variation, and natural selection
acted on those variations, producing great transformations gradually over
millions of years.
The synthetic theory of evolution, or neo-Darwinism,
was born. It breathed new life into evolutionary theory, and
seemed to satisfy most evolutionary biologists; so much so, that by
the Darwin Centennial in 1959 (the 100th anniversary of the publication
of On the Origin of Species), Julian Huxley stated that
Darwins theory of evolution had reached the status of undisputed
fact, and that all of the universe was describable as a single, continuous
process of evolution. The euphoria was not to last.
Mathematical challenges by Sir Peter Medawar and others cast serious
doubt on the ability of neo-Darwinism to produce substantive changes.
By the 1980s, evidence for a discontinuous record in the fossils and
in the genes divided the Darwinians into the gradualist
and the punctuationist camps. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge,
in particular, angered their gradualist foes by arguing that
evolution occurred in fits and starts. The debate continues to
this day. The late 20th century saw an explosion of knowledge
about genetics. It became possible to trace the actual genes,
letter by letter, in the genetic code, and watch the sorting of alleles
into the gametes. One thing became clear: cells are fastidious
about ensuring genes are accurately copied and distributed without error.
Comparative genomics has shown that mutations do occur, and that the
same gene in different animals may show numerous differences, while
others are highly conserved or virtually identical.
In some cases it is possible for individual DNA letters
to mutate without damage; there is a certain amount of resiliency in the
genetic code, such that a single mutation might not produce any functional
change. These are called neutral mutations. Also, elaborate
proofreading mechanisms were discovered, showing that cells have many
ways to correct mutations. Numerous mutations have been shown to
cause disease or death, but to this day, biologists have been unable to
show a clear case of a mutation leading to a new species, or even an
undisputed benefit that would provide fodder for natural selection.
Most examples put forward of favorable mutations would be beneficial only in isolated
environments, with a net fitness cost to the individual (such as the
mutation that leads to sickle-cell anemia; it provides some resistance
to malaria, but would otherwise certainly be characterized as a
deleterious mutation). Numerous attempts to induce mutations,
especially on the fruit fly Drosophila,
have been neutral at best, and generally detrimental or deadly.
Furthermore, figuring out how a theoretical beneficial mutation might
become established in a population, given Mendels laws, has
proved elusive. As of this writing, a growing number of scientists
are wondering whether natural selection the principle that made
Darwin famous is even effective in biological evolution at all.
Nothing offered to replace it, however, has survived any rigorous
experimental test. The upshot of this overview of subsequent
history is that Mendels Laws stand, while Darwins speculations
teeter on the brink of collapse.
A museum has been erected in Mendels honor at the monastery at
Brunn, Austria, where he did his famous experiments. Despite the
explicit wishes of the abbott of the monastery, however, the display
ignores the religious side of Mendels life and focuses exclusively
on the experimental work (see 05/15/2002
headline). The abbott succumbed to a year of pressure and
misinformation against him, only submitting to the secularized display
by gaining a promise to hold an annual workshop on bioethics at the
site. This shameful rewriting of history will succeed only if
we allow it. People interested in the history of science should
be told, emphatically, that the laws of genetics were discovered by
a creationist who understood the Genesis statement, Let them bring
forth... after their kind.
Learn More About
Why was Mendel ignored? See what Wolf-Ekkehard Loennig has researched
about the matter at his page about
Johann Gregor Mendel.
Check back soon for other internet links to resources about Mendel.
Louis Pasteur 1822 - 1895
Who contributed more to the saving of human lives than any other scientist? Who has been called the greatest
biologist of all time? Who revolutionized medicine and public health with his discoveries? A creationist
and a Christian Louis Pasteur. Let no one claim that faith in God is detrimental to science; you need look
no farther than to this great man who said, The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the
Pasteur was a humble, godly Catholic who served God and his fellow man through science. If you enjoy milk
that doesnt spoil in a day, if you enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods, if you can take a quick shot and then
live without fear of deadly diseases, if you enjoy a longer life than your ancestors did, you should thank the good doctor
from France, because you owe much of your physical health and safety to him. But your ultimate thanks should go to
the Great Physician, who taught the Israelites many principles of good health and sanitation in the Bible. Pasteur
merely rediscovered and elaborated on two basic ideas from the Old Testament: (1) uncleanness causes disease,
(2) life was created, and propagates after its kind. Pasteurs discoveries sounded the death knell for
centuries of evolutionary speculation.
Young Louis knew the smell of leather from his fathers tanning business. Though his father, who had
fought in Napoleons army, sacrificed
to give his son a better education than he had, Louis was considered a dull student, and vacillated between ideas for
what to do with his life. According to John Hudson Tiner, who has written an excellent narrative biography of
Pasteur for the Sowers Series, one of his teachers saw buried in him a
spirit of determination and imagination that had the potential for greatness, and helped fan it into flame. He
was sent to Paris at age 15, but his time had not yet come; his homesickness made him fumble, and he had some
maturing to do. While dabbling in art and trying various subjects, he improved in determination and learned to
trust God. He made it his goal to do better at the university, and the next time in Paris, honed on a dogged
determination that would characterize his life, he rose to the head of
his class. But when he heard a lecture on chemistry by J. B. Dumas, he found his calling. What followed was
one of the most phenomenal series of major discoveries in the history of science.
Though best known for discoveries in medicine, Pasteur was a chemist. One of his early discoveries still
baffles evolutionists today. While studying crystals under polarized light, he found that certain molecules
come in left- and right-handed forms that are mirror-images of each other, a phenomenon now known as
chirality. Even more remarkable, he found that living things use entirely one hand. Most
natural substances are composed of fifty-fifty racemic mixtures of both hands, the stereoisomers
of a given chiral molecule, but for some reason living things were 100% pure of one hand. Pasteur recognized
this as a defining characteristic of life, and it remains a mystery to this day.
We now know that proteins, which
are made up of 100% pure left-handed amino acids, could not function if they were racemic (mixtures of both hands),
but how did life get started with just one hand, when both are equally probable? This appears to be a
clear evidence of intelligent design, because the probability of getting just one hand in a
chain of amino acids is
vanishingly small, like flipping a coin and getting heads a hundred times in a row. Pasteur certainly considered
this an evidence of a Creator, but today evolutionists are continuing to struggle with this observational fact, looking
for some natural process that would yield even a hopeful majority to one hand or the other. To this day, none has
succeeded. They know that close enough is not good enough; only a 100% pure chain would work.
The problem is compounded by the discovery that RNA and DNA contain sugar molecules that
are 100% right-handed.
Pasteurs discovery of chirality is one of two major obstacles
he erected in the path of evolutionary theory, obstacles that have only gotten higher over time. The early hopes
of the Darwinians should have died in their tracks with discoveries of Pasteur and Mendel. Unfortunately,
evolutionists persist in thinking that unguided natural forces can surmount these obstacles. Pasteur would
feel at home today with the controversy over intelligent design vs naturalism, because he fought the skeptics of his
day, and knew the difficulty of getting his critics to face the facts. His persistence, and the irrefutable
nature of his findings, gave him eventual success.
The other obstacle Pasteur raised to evolution was his law of biogenesis, the principle that only life begets
life. Since the Greeks, and probably long before, philosophers and commoners believed that life could arise
out of nonliving material. Is it not a common childhood observation that maggots and flies and all sorts of vermin seem
to magically appear out of nowhere? The myth of spontaneous generation seems
silly today, but was a common opinion throughout most of history. Leeuwenhoek
opposed it with rigorous observations through his microscope, and the macro version of spontaneous
generation eventually succumbed to the experiments of Redi and Spallanzani. (These are often used as
textbook examples of the experimental method.)
In Pasteurs day, however, a majority still believed
that micro-organisms came from nonliving matter; for one thing, they seemed to proliferate rapidly even in distilled
liquid; for another, there were so many varieties, they seemed almost chaotic and impossible to classify. Lastly,
micro-organisms seemed very simple. It was easy to imagine them appearing without help; maybe some
vital force gave rise to them. Experiments on both sides of the debate yielded equivocal
results. Pasteur decided to enter the fray, against the advice of his peers that it would be a waste of time; but
his persistence succeeding in delivering the knockout blow. He would say triumphantly, Never
again shall the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from the mortal blow that this one simple experiment has
What was the experiment that gave him such confidence? It was a model of rigorous scientific method.
His opponents already knew that a sealed jar of nutrient broth would not generate life. They surmised that
air contained a vital ingredient. Pasteur believed that microbes in dust, not the air itself, produced the swarms
of living things. How could he create an environment open to the air, but prevent microbes in dust from getting
to the broth? This problem led to his famous swan-necked flask experiment. He put a nutrient broth
into a flask, then heated and shaped the neck into a horizontal S-curve open to the air. Dust containing the
microbes became trapped in the curve and could not enter the broth, but the air could pass freely in and out.
Pasteur demonstrated to his critics and skeptics that under these circumstances, the broth remained sterile, while
flasks without the swan neck swarmed with microorganisms.
Some diehards still objected, however. They said that if
the air were infested with microbes, it would form a dense fog. Pasteur responded with a series of experiments
taking his flasks to a variety of environments, in the city and in the country, and even up high on Mont Blanc (where
he had to endure a cold night in a miserable inn). The flasks in the city became clouded with microbes, but
all but one on the high mountain were sterile. He concluded that microbe-carrying dust particles vary with
elevation and pollution, but clearly it was microbes in airborne dust, not the air itself, was the source of the life that
appeared to spontaneously generate in the broth. He publicly challenged his opponents to prove him wrong
with rigorous experiments that excluded airborne dust, and they could not. The Academy of Sciences
judged Pasteurs observations to be of the most perfect exactitude,and in the end, even his bitterest critics
and the most ardent advocates of spontaneous generation acquiesced. Pasteur said, No there is
today no circumstance known in which it can be confirmed that microscopic beings have come into the world
without germs, without parents similar to them. Those who maintain this view are the victims of illusions,
of ill-conducted experiments, blighted with errors that they have either been unable to perceive or unable to
avoid. Yet they are with us today.
Today, believers in spontaneous generation are back with a vengeance. They are called astrobiologists
and chemical evolutionists. Their slant is that spontaneous generation does not happen quickly, but can
over millions of years, not from nutrient broth, but from primordial soup organic molecules known to be
formed naturally, like some amino acids. They believe that, given enough time and the right circumstances,
life arose from simple molecules and evolved into every living thing, seahorses, giraffes, dinosaurs, roses, and
humans. Do they have any evidence for this? Absolutely not. Pasteurs Law of Biogenesis,
that only life begets life, stands as firm as it did in 1862. Pasteurs judgment on those who violate that
law should be sternly proclaimed from the lecterns of todays Astrobiology conferences as he proclaimed it
in person: Those who maintain this view are the victims of illusions, of ill-conducted experiments, blighted with
errors that they have either been unable to perceive or unable to avoid.
Pasteur Vallery-Radot wrote a brief biography of his famous grandfather in 1958, and claimed that Pasteur
did not consider spontaneous generation altogether impossible. He even claimed Pasteur had
dreams about creating or modifying life. But he provides no support for that claim, referring back
only to an earlier time when, working with crystals, Pasteur appeared optimistic that if he could identify the
forces that produced asymmetry, he would be at the threshold of life. But on the very next page, he
quotes Pasteur as admitting defeat and saying, After all, one has to be something of a fool to undertake
what I did. This was prior to his experiments on spontaneous generation, so Pasteur appears to
have convinced himself even back then that Life was too extraordinary to explain with chemicals acting under
After this unsupported assertion, Vallery-Radot went on to praise the Miller spark-discharge
experiment: In fact,
only recently the ancient argument for the spontaneous generation of life has revived, on the basis of laboratory
experiments. These revealed that the basic elements making up living matter can be synthesized out of
simple chemicals, under conditions existing on this planet a billion years ago. Thus Pasteurs
grandson became seduced by the neo-spontaneous generationists, unaware that the alleged conditions could not have
existed on the early earth, and the products were useless, mixed-handed dead ends. Descendent regardless,
it was a distortion for Vallery-Radot to assert that Pasteur was favorable to ideas of evolution. John Hudson
Tiner said, Pasteur rejected the theory of evolution for scientific reasons. He was the first European
scientist to do so. He also rejected it on religious grounds (History of Medicine, p. 81). He said,
My philosophy comes from the heart and not from the intellect, and I adhere to that which is inspired by the
natural eternal sentiments one feels at the sickbed of a beloved child breathing his last. Something deep
in our soul tells us that the universe is more than an arrangement of certain compounds in a mechanical
equilibrium, arisen from the chaos of elements by a gradual action of Natures forces (Vallery-Radot, p. 157).
This is a clear rejection of Darwinian naturalism.
We may not know exactly how Pasteur would respond to todays evolutionists and astrobiologists,
but most likely he would not be impressed by illusions, of ill-conducted experiments, blighted with errors
that they have either been unable to perceive or unable to avoid. Pasteur was a stickler for scientific
proof and intellectual honesty. He summarized his lifelong attitude, If I have at times disturbed the
tranquillity of your academies by somewhat stormy discussions, it was only because I am a passionate defender
of the truth. He would not, therefore, have
tolerated the unsupported speculations of the chemical evolutionists. He was also a creationist and a
devout man of faith. He said, The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the works of the
Creator. Despite the evolution that permeates todays Pasteur Institute, evolutionists
cannot claim Louis Pasteur as their own. We think he would be pleased at the progress in medicine but
appalled at the evolutionary mindset.
But we digress; we have only begun to share the honorable achievements of this great scientist.
Pasteurization: just the word suggests a benefit every one of us takes for granted but, without which, we would
be cast backward into harsher and riskier times people coped with for most of history: times in which
spoilage of food and drink were daily concerns.
Through experiments with yeast in wine, Pasteur found that by heating the wine to a certain temperature
after fermentation but before spoiling bacteria invaded, the wine could be preserved much longer without loss of
taste. This discovery applied soon to milk, orange juice, and many other goods, and revolutionized food
processing. Now, drinks could be carried on board ships without spoilage. Farmers and merchants
did not have to rush goods to market so quickly, and risk great economic loss from spoilage due to delays in shipment.
When combined with the refrigeration that came out of the work of Lord Kelvin and
James Joule, pasteurization gave households the ability to enjoy
good-tasting drinks for days and weeks without having to restock. The economic benefits of this simple
lab discovery were enormous, and could have made Pasteur rich. But humble and unselfish man he
was, believing science was for the good of the people, Pasteur promptly released his patent to the public
domain and never benefited financially from it, though he was not a rich man by any means. (The term
pasteurization was applied to the process later in his honor.) Today, Surebeam Corporation has extended the
concept to electronic pasteurization, the use of electron beams for killing the bacteria that spoil food,
and it is also being applied to protecting our mail from terrorist attempts that attempt to spread anthrax.
Which brings us to another of Pasteurs monumental achievements, the germ theory of disease.
Its hard for us these days to fathom the mindset of doctors who, through most of history, attributed
infectious disease to bad air, bad bodily fluids, comets and mystical forces. Pasteur was convinced that
the microbes he studied were the agents of infection, and proved it with a series of remarkable, life-saving and
industry-saving discoveries. His work is legendary and covered in detail in some of the books we
recommend, such as John Hudson Tiners History of Medicine and Founder of Modern
Medicine: Louis Pasteur, but we will touch on some of them briefly. One of the most famous
experiments involved anthrax in livestock. Anthrax was economically crippling to farmers and ranchers
who could only look on in despair as their sheep weakened and died. Pasteur isolated the microbe
that caused the disease. In a remarkable stroke of luck and insight, Pasteur learned that a weakened
form of the bacteria provided the same immunity without killing the animal. When he was convinced of
his theory, he set out to prove it in a risky public demonstration that put his reputation on the line.
He took 50 sheep and inoculated 25 of them with weakened anthrax bacilli. Then, in a good controlled
experiment, he exposed all 50 to the full virulent form. Critics were poised and ready to call him a
crazy fool; would it work? With the whole countryside watching, Pasteur announced in advance that only
100% success would prove his theory right. Even he became a little uneasy in private. He spent
a sleepless night waiting for word of the results. In the morning, a telegram: Stupendous
success! All the inoculated sheep were doing fine; every one not inoculated died.
Pasteurs critics flocked to him like repentant sinners, and his celebrity skyrocketed. Ranchers
were saved; anthrax now had a cure. His method of identifying the infectious agent, weakening it,
and then using it to inoculate a host soon was applied to many other debilitating diseases, by Pasteur
himself (on cholera) and others, saving millions of lives. Probably no other discovery in the history of science
has saved more lives than Pasteurs germ theory of disease, applied to immunization. Edward
Jenner had applied a similar method to smallpox in 1796 without knowledge of the infectious agent; with
Pasteur, vaccination had a theory and a methodology that could be applied to many diseases.
Though a chemist and not a doctor, Pasteur is rightly considered a founder, perhaps the founder,
of modern medicine. In his later years, one particular deadly disease was to give Pasteur the challenge of
his life: rabies.
Rabies is a viral infection. The virus was too small to be seen by microscopes in Pasteurs time.
This lack of evidence threatened his germ theory, but Pasteur was convinced an unseen microbial agent caused
the disease, and proceeded to follow his procedure of finding ways to weaken it. It was hard work, with
many false starts and dead ends, but he eventually was successful inoculating dogs with a series of increasingly
potent rabies shots that appeared to provide immunity. Thats when he had a knock at the door.
A desperate mother with her son, Joseph Meister, who had been bitten by a mad dog, pleaded with Pasteur for
help. He replied that he was not ready for human testing, but she and other doctors agreed that if nothing
was done, Joseph would die. Rabies was always fatal. With nothing to lose, Joseph agreed to be a
test patient, and the compassionate Pasteur, realizing there was only one chance, once again put his
reputation on the line and began the sequence of inoculations. Pasteur was in anguish over his patients
predicament and the fear of failure. After a month passed, Joseph Meister was healthy, with no symptomsthe
first man in history to be cured of rabies. Patients, bitten by rapid animals, flocked to his lab, for the first time
having hope to be spared an agonizing, painful, certain death. Pasteur was again a hero.
Pasteurs germ theory also saved the silk industry and led to many other discoveries, both economically
and medically beneficial. Today we know much more about infectious agents and the bodys
amazing immune system, and many new techniques are available. Now scientists can target the very
genes that code for genetic diseases, and are working on molecular magic bullets that can stop a particular
toxin produced by a germ, but they owe much to the pathway Pasteur blazed for applying empirical science to the
public good. He demonstrated the power of controlled experimentation, rigorous
testing, and formulating hypotheses that can be tested. He had no use for empty speculations and grandiose
stories that could not be observed and tested to be true or false. A maxim he liked to quote was,
It is the worst aberration of the mind to believe things because one wishes them to be so.
Prove it, he demanded. Much of modern science in the 21st century, unfortunately, rests on unproveable
assumptions, unobservable causes, and wishful thinking. Classical empirical science, hard science that
depended on controlled experimentation, a scientific method that harked back to Roger Bacon
and Francis Bacon, practiced
by great Christians through the centuries in many fields, reached one of its highest pinnacles in Louis Pasteur.
Some great scientists of the 20th century have been moral midgets and character cripples, but not Pasteur.
He embodied the utmost in integrity and altruism. Despite a crippling stroke at age 46 that nearly ended his
career, he rallied with even more zeal to apply science for human good, and that is when he many of his greatest
discoveries. Though zealous for his causes, he attacked falsehoods but not men. His grandson
described him: This man, so intolerant against adversaries who refused to listen to the truth, was in his private
life the gentlest, most affectionate and sensitive individual. As Emile Roux stated, Pasteurs
work is admirable and proves his genius, but one had to live in his house to fully recognize the goodness of his
heart. That goodness extended to the children inflicted with rabies who came to be healed,
to his own family, and to his dear wife Marie Laurent, to whom he gave lifelong devotion. A more endearing
team could hardly be found in the history of science. His wife recognized his genius and gave him every
possible leeway and assistance to aid him and encourage him in his work; in turn, he loved her passionately and
faithfully all his life and gave her all the quality time his busy schedule could allow. Though driven with an
uncommon zeal for his mission in life, Louis Pasteur was a family man, a good father, a devoted husband.
Pasteur was showered with honors late in life. For decades, he endured harsh critics who considered
him a crackpot, a charlatan, a villain, or just lucky. One opponent even challenged him to a duel. Others accused
him falsely of giving people rabies, not curing it. Pasteur responded with honor and integrity and zeal.
He could be blistering in his attacks, but never vituperative; he attacked falsehoods, not personalities, and defended
truth, not his own prestige. In his heart, he knew he was right, and that confidence helped him endure
hardship, his stroke, deprivation, anxiety, and character assassination. But wisdom knows its own; at age 70 he stood before
a standing ovation of hundreds of academics, doctors and members of scientific societies from around the world
who had come to pay him tribute. Joseph Lister, who had applied Pasteurs
germ theory of disease to antiseptics in the hospital and thus drastically reduced mortality rates, paid him tribute
by saying, Pasteur had lifted the veil that for centuries had hidden the infectious diseases. These
two men, who combined had done more to save human lives than any other, embraced on stage, resulting in
thundering applause from the audience. Too moved to speak, Pasteur gave his son his address, which
contained these self-effacing words,
You delegates of foreign countries who have come a long way to show your sympathy for France, have
given me the greatest joy a man can feel who believes that Science and Peace will prevail over Ignorance
and War, that the nations will learn to understand each other, not for destruction but for advancement, and
that the future belongs to those who have done most for suffering mankind. Young men ... Ask yourselves
first: What have I done for my education? And as you gradually advance: What have I done for my country?
until the moment comes when you experience the tremendous gratification of knowing that in some
measure you have contributed to the progress and welfare of mankind. More or less favored by the
current of life as your efforts may be, you must have the right to say, on approaching the great goal: I have
done all I could do.
His grandson wrote, Pasteurs health was undermined by a life overcharged with ideas,
emotions, work, and struggles (Vallery-Radot, p. 195). He suffered two more debilitating strokes
and finally died holding his wifes hand and a crucifix in the other. At his crypt are inscribed his words,
Blessed is the Man who Carries in his Soul a God, a Beautiful Ideal that he ObeysIdeal of
Art, Ideal of Science, Ideal of the Fatherland, Ideal of the Virtues of the Gospel. Stephen Paget, a long time friend,
who studied his life carefully, eulogized him after his death with these words: Here was a life, within the
limits of humanity, well-nigh perfect. He worked incessantly. He went through poverty, bereavement,
ill health and opposition. He lived to see his doctrines current over all the world. Yet here was a man
whose spiritual life was no less admirable than his scientific life (Founder of Modern Medicine, p. 176).
Was Pasteur a born-again Christian? His son-in-law said that he believed in the divine impulse which has
created the Universe; with the yearnings of his heart he proclaimed the immortality of the soul.
His grandson said, Pasteur respected the religion of his forefathers; he had profound Christian ideals,
but he was not, as has been asserted, an observant Catholic (Vallery-Radot, p. 159). John Hudson Tiner claims Pasteur
had devotions each morning, read the Bible and prayed before going about each days activity (History
of Medicine, p. 84). Henry Morris quotes him as saying, Could I but know all, I would have the faith
of a Breton peasant woman (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 62). In some quotes Pasteur
sounds mystical or indefinite in his concept of God, portraying Him as an Infinity that might be embodied in various
religions. We know, however, that people grow in faith and understanding at different times in their lives, so
one quote might not fairly characterize the lifetime. Tiner quotes his son-in-law as stating that at the end, The virtues of the gospel
were very present to him. He came to his Christian faith simply and naturally for spiritual help in the last
stages of his life (Founder of Modern Medicine, p. 175). Clearly he was not a materialist, but its hard to say
for sure if Pasteur fully understood and accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ in its
New Testament sense. Jesus did say that you will know men by their fruits, and Christian values and character
traits were evident throughout his life. If nothing else, Pasteur stood squarely in the tradition of Boyle, Newton and Maxwell in
seeing science as a godly calling for the worship of the Creator and the betterment of mankind. The fruits
of the Christian world view in science were ripe and sweet in the life of Louis Pasteur, and we are all the better for it.
Remember this great scientist whenever you open your refrigerator and pour from a container that says, pasteurized.
The rest of the story: At the Pasteur Institute today, some of Pasteurs original swan-necked flasks remain
open to the air, the broth still sterile after 140 years.
Learn More About|
Visit the Pasteur Institute which he founded, and see where they have
listed his achievements. (Sad to say,
the Institute these days is a bastion of evolutionary thinking).
Recommended books: History of Medicine by John Hudson Tiner (Master Books, 1999). Also, by the
same author, Founder of Modern Medicine: Louis Pasteur (The Sowers Series, Mott Media, 1990).
Joseph Lister 1827 - 1912
Imagine making a discovery so important that a whole branch of science dates its
calendar by it. That is what happened because of a Christian doctor.
Joseph Listers discovery of antisepsis has led some to divide the history
of medicine into the eras before Lister and after Lister.
His work did more to save lives in the hospital than any other in history.
Surprisingly, it took nearly a generation for his discovery to become accepted.
He faced strong opposition from doctors and surgeons who didnt believe him and
werent about to change their ways. In the end, however, because of
Listers perseverance in teaching what he knew was right, and from the dramatic
success of those who followed his procedures, his ideas finally took hold, and
at his death, he was a world-wide hero.
Born in a devout Quaker household, young Joseph learned about science at an early
age. His father, Joseph Jackson Lister, a renowned amateur scientist himself,
found a solution to the problem of chromatic aberration in microscope lenses.
This discovery brought a major improvement to microscopy which had been around
since Leeuwenhoek first made crude hand-held
devices in the late 17th century. Leeuwenhoek had been the first to discover
bacteria under the microscope. Astonishingly, it took two centuries for doctors
and scientists to make a connection between the tiny creatures and disease.
Joseph Jr. quickly became an expert at the microscope. He studied at
University College, London because Quakers and non-conformists were not allowed
in Cambridge or Oxford. By 1850, at age 23, he was a doctor, with degrees
in medicine and surgery. Three years later, he became the assistant of the
great medical teacher Professor James Syme at Edinburgh, Scotland. Syme
was very impressed and desired to groom Joseph to become his successor.
The relationship was strengthened when Joseph became attracted to his daughter
Agnes; the two married in 1856. Lister joined his wife in the Anglican
church. Agnes took great interest in all of Listers
work. On their three-month honeymoon touring the continent, what did they
do but visit all the major hospitals of France and Germany! Though she
bore no children, Agnes remained his most loyal and dedicated companion.
She helped with Josephs home laboratory. She ran experiments, kept
records and provided ample love and encouragement.
Needing surgery in a hospital operating room in the mid-19th century was almost a death sentence.
Disease and infection were so rampant, chances of survival were slim. Hospitals
were dark, stinking places filled with the screams of patients. The great
killer was infection. No one knew what caused it. Bacteria were known,
but were dismissed as passive microbes with no effect. Most surgeons suspected
oxidation to be the culprit. They would hurry through their surgeries in hopes
of keeping exposure to the air to a minimum. In hindsight, it is shocking to
consider how unsanitary the conditions were. Surgeons would use the same blood-stained
apron in surgery after surgery, and only washed their hands afterwards. If a surgeon
dropped a scalpel on the floor, or on his dirty boot, he would just pick it up and continue
operating. Its no wonder that death rates for amputations ranged from 24% in America to
80% in Germany. A compound fracture or amputation of one finger could often result
in 50-50 odds of dying.
Progress in sanitation was slow. Florence Nightingale found that cleanliness,
fresh air and large, ventilated rooms aided survival, but the reasons were unclear. Ignaz Semmelweis
promoted hand-washing in 1847 another piece of advice that was soundly rejected
by surgeons for a long time. As with most surgeons, Joseph Lister grieved over
the high death rate of patients. What could be done? Listers
familiarity with the microscope, and his respect for the scientific method learned
in his youth, combined with his Christian compassion and humility, set him up for a
great turning point. Louis Pasteur believed that fortune favors the
prepared mind. Lister was about to illustrate this proverb.
One day around 1865 a colleague, a chemist, related to Lister how he had started catching up on
his reading. He had found a ten-year-old paper by a relatively unknown French chemist
(Louis Pasteur) that sounded interesting.
Pasteur had found that rod-shaped bacteria caused fermentation in wine.
He found that by heating the wine enough to kill the bacteria but not the yeast
(a process that became known as pasteurization), wine could be kept from spoiling
for long periods. Lister soon suspected that bacteria might be the cause of
infection. He studied wounds with his microscopes, and sure enough, found
rod-shaped bacteria (bacilli) present. What to do? He couldnt heat
his patients! But then he heard another report how sewers in France had been making
the cows sick, but when the townspeople sprayed the sewage pits with carbolic acid,
the smell was reduced and the cows remained healthy. That was it!
He would try carbolic acid as a way to fight infection.
Soon he had a patient, a young man with a minor compound fracture. Lister used a
sprayer he had invented to spray dilute solutions of carbolic acid on the wound
and dressings. The results were dramatic. No infection set in, and the
young man recovered completely. Encouraged by his results, Lister devised a
set of procedures for spraying the wound, the surgical instruments and the
operating room with carbolic acid. He would apply dressings with carbolic
acid and replace them regularly. As he kept records, the death rate plummeted.
Lister knew he had made a life-saving discovery and was motivated to spread the word.
He published two major papers, in 1867 and 1870, that demonstrated the life-saving
properties of what he named antisepsis.
One would think the world would be waiting for such news. The exact opposite
happened. The medical community scoffed at Listers wild ideas. They did not
believe him that bacteria caused infection. His elaborate rituals with carbolic acid
were way out of the norm too radical, too inconvenient, too crazy.
For one thing, the stuff smelled awful, it made the surgeons hands
look like red meat, and took too much time to go through all the procedures
for something that, to them, made no sense.
Lister persisted. For years, no amount of teaching and demonstrating
his techniques could overcome the professional inertia of the proud surgical community.
from the continent, and younger students, were more accepting, but those in London
and around the British Isles treated Listers doctrine with contempt.
In America it was even worse. Debates raged about the new procedure; few
believed it. Lister kept on with the fervor of an evangelist.
Only after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), with its thousands of deaths from
amputations, did French and German doctors flock to Listers lecture hall.
So few of his own fellow Englishman attended, the college translated the no smoking
signs into French and German. His new converts took the practice of antisepsis
to the continent. As could be expected, survival rates skyrocketed.
The success of Listers techniques could no longer be avoided once Robert
Koch experimentally proved a connection between bacteria and disease in 1882.
Even so, most of the older doctors had to die off before a new generation rose to
accept and use the new practices.
Some converts to Listers antisepsis theory, particularly in Germany,
advanced the methods of fighting infection.
Inventive scientists found other disease-fighting chemicals. In 1879, an enterprizing
inventor named his germ-fighting solution Listerine in Listers honor. And
if anti-sepsis (fighting disease germs) was good, why not a-sepsis (preventing germs)
in the first place? New aseptic techniques were tried: sterilizing everything,
wearing clean garments, washing hands. By the late
1980s and into the 1990s it became routine to enter the operating room with sterilized
clothing and instruments. Rigorous hand-washing was performed before contact with
the patient. Surgical gloves and steam sterilization were invented.
Cleanliness in medicine was very practically next to godliness. As for Lister,
he cared not who got the credit, or whether doctors preferred antisepsis or
asepsis he was just glad that thousands of lives were now being saved.
Thanks to the germ theory of disease and the practices advanced by Joseph Lister,
the dirty operating rooms of centuries past
were replaced with the bastions of cleanliness we know today.
Lister became one of the most beloved scientists and doctors in history. He
was knighted by the queen. He was elected President of the Royal Society.
A food-borne pathogen Listeria was named after him. His 80th
birthday in 1907 was celebrated around the world. Some wanted him to be buried
in Westminster Abbey, but Lister refused the honor. Upon his death at age
84, he was interred next to his beloved wife Agnes who had preceded him in death by
Joseph Lister was a tall, handsome, unpretentious man loved by all his patients and
colleagues. He cared for people and treated all his fellows with respect and
congeniality. He loved the truth and contended for it with perseverance despite
opposition. These virtues were the products of his beliefs.
A fervent Christian all his life, he confessed, I am a believer
in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
Let no modernist say, therefore, that Christian fundamentalism is a hindrance to good science.
Millions are living and science is thriving due to the faith in action of a great
scientist and compassionate doctor who, it can rightly be said, ushered in the age
of modern surgery after Lister.
Learn More About|
Short biographies of Lister can be found at:
A Christian biography of Lister by Ann Lamont is available at
Read Listers own words: read his first paper on antisepsis from 1867,
available at the
Modern History Sourcebook.
Visit the Lister Institute,
a charitable research institute dedicated to laboratory work in preventive medicine.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt 1868 - 1921
Behold the distant stars, how high they are. (Job 22:12)
Lets take a look at a remarkable woman astronomer, whose scientific work has been, and continues to be, of
the utmost significance for our understanding of the universe. She not only overcame the gender barrier to
achieve greatness in science, but physical disability as well.
All of the other scientists in our hall of fame have been men. Today, there are many women scientists, but until
the twentieth century, whether from prejudice, tradition, or the needs of homemaking, women had rarely entered the almost
exclusively male domains of science and technology.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt is a glorious exception, and with her, a whole group of lady astronomers who, under
Dr. Edward C. Pickering of Harvard, made it their mission to survey the stars. Pickering hired local women, who were willing
to work for less money, to do the tedious work of measuring stars from thousands of photographic plates.
Annie Jump Cannon, one of Pickerings harem
as it was later crudely dubbed, would become famous for her star classification scheme OBAFGKM (memorialized
by the guys for its mnemonic O Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me).
Henrietta Swan Leavitt, however, would always be most famous of the group: she helped us measure the universe.
Deaf, and reserved in manner but charmingly sweet, Henrietta Leavitt had a brilliant mind and a capacity for detail that helped her discover an
astronomical law destined to put her in the history books. This law become the essential tool Edwin Hubble would later use to determine the distance to the nebulae
(clouds) unknown fuzzy objects found in all directions of the sky. Leavitt was the daughter of a congregational minister.
She graduated from what was later named Radcliffe College, and in 1892, joined the Harvard College Observatory as a volunteer research
assistant. Soon after the twentieth century began, she rose to the head of a department measuring stellar magnitudes (brightnesses). For the next several years, she performed very tedious work, searching thousands of plates taken from an observatory in Peru, for a special class of pulsating stars called Cepheid variables. For reasons unknown at the time, Cepheids were known to vary regularly in brightness. Some pulsated rapidly, in a few hours or days, and some took months, but they could be depended on like clockwork. By 1908 she had compiled a list of well over a thousand Cepheids in a nebular patch of the southern sky called the Small Magellanic Cloud. Her careful observations uncovered an important relationship: the longer the period, the brighter the star.
Great advances in science are often made by individuals who not only observe something interesting, but get that flash of insight that allows them to interpret the meaning of the observation. To understand the significance of her find, we need to recall the concept of the universe in Leavitts day. The
Herschels and other notable astronomers had catalogued thousands of stars, but were frustrated by a
common fact, that you cannot tell the distance of a star by its brightness alone. It might be a very bright star very far away, or a very dim
star close up. If you had a standard candle or light source of known brightness, you could use it as a distance measuring
tool. Think of a row of uniform street lights vanishing in the distance along a city street. If every lamp is the same, you can use the
apparent brightness of a lamp, i.e., how bright it looks to your eye or film, and compare it to the lamps absolute brightness, or how bright it would look from a known, standard distance, to measure how far away it is.
The relationship Leavitt observed is a little more complicated, but similar. If you know that fast-blinking lamps are intrinsically dimmer than slow-blinking lamps, they will have a relationship that allows you to
infer how far away one is by measuring its apparent brightness or magnitude, and comparing that to its blinking rate, or period, which is linked to its absolute magnitude. A simple mathematical equation then gives you the distance. Before
Leavitt, no standard candle was known. Other than the few nearby stars that could be measured using triangulation, no stars hinted at a reliable method that could tell for sure how far they were, and by extrapolation, how far the universe extended. Astronomers took part in
the Great Debate was everything inside the Milky Way, or were some objects beyond it? Just how big was
the Milky Way?
Leavitt used a fair assumption that the stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud were all, within reason, the same distance from us.
This meant she could compare each stars absolute magnitude, or luminosity, as if she were to see a variety of lamps of different brightnesses from the same distance d (where d was still to be determined). She found 16 Cepheids on the plates that appeared often enough to measure their periods. Plotting the periods of these stars on a graph against their apparent luminosities, she saw that they all fell on a line: she had
found a Period-Luminosity Relation. If astronomers could determine the distance to one Cepheid, they could
calibrate the relationship and use it as a measuring stick. They would have their long-sought standard candle.
Henrietta Leavitt published her results, enthusiastic about the possibilities of the relationship for measuring objects in space. But
Pickering assigned her to other duties that he felt were more appropriate as womens work than making fundamental discoveries.
Other astronomers like Hertzprung and Shapley became intrigued by Leavitts paper, however, and found ways to calibrate her
standard candle. It took several iterations and error corrections, but by the 1920s, using Cepheids with the Period-Luminosity Relation had become an increasingly accepted method of measurement, and astronomers were finally getting a grasp on the distances to the stars.
Leavitt did not live to see the epochal day in October, 1923, when Edwin Hubble,
working at the new 100" telescope on Mt. Wilson near Los Angeles, the largest in the world at the time, excitedly wrote "VAR!" on a plate taken of the Andromeda Nebula. He had found a Cepheid variable star within it. This Cepheid was to bring powerful new evidence into the long-standing debate about the nature of these spiral
nebulae: were they clouds of dust or gas within the Milky Way, or star systems far beyond it? Hubble noted that this Cepheid was much dimmer than most. Applying Henrietta Leavitts Period-Luminosity Relation, he calculated that the Andromeda Nebula must be
extremely distant; it was in fact another galaxy like our own, far beyond the Milky Way an island universe in the vastness of empty space. As the implications of this discovery began to
sink in, and objections to it withered and disappeared, the age of galactic astronomy was born. By 1935, the cosmos had multiplied in size a hundred billionfold an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of the heavens, unlikely to ever be surpassed. Armed with Leavitts standard candle, Hubble and other astronomers revealed to our telescopes a universe of unfathomably immense proportions.
The glory of this discovery was due largely to this wonderful lady scientist, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize
posthumously in 1925. What kind of person was she?
Solon I. Bailey eulogized her in these words:
Miss Leavitt inherited, in a somewhat chastened form, the stern
virtues of her puritan ancestors. She took life seriously. Her sense of duty, justice and loyalty was strong. For light amusements she appeared to care little. She was a devoted member of her intimate family circle, unselfishly considerate in her friendships, steadfastly loyal to her principles, and deeply conscientious and sincere in her attachment to her religion and church. She had the happy faculty of appreciating all that was worthy and lovable in others, and was possessed of a nature so full of sunshine that, to
her, all of life became beautiful and full of meaning.
This moving description makes it clear that
Miss Leavitt exemplified the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Christians, creationists, women, and the disabled all can justly look to Dr. Henrietta Swan Leavitt as a role model of an overcomer, an achiever, and an exemplary Christian.
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. I Corinthians 15:41
Learn More About|
Read Leavitts Original 1912 Paper
announcing the Period-Luminosity Relation.
Learn more about her in the UCLA History of Astronomy and the Encyclopedia Britannicas Women in
This short biography contains the quotation by
Solon I. Bailey.
Find the lunar crater named after Miss Leavitt.
Does the Bible teach a universe as vast as that revealed by modern astronomy? See:
For more detail, see Scripture References to Astronomy.
- Psalm 8
- Psalm 19
- Psalm 96:3-6
- Psalm 103:11-12
- Isaiah 40-41
- Isaiah 55:9
- Jeremiah 10:11-12
- Jeremiah 31:37
- Jeremiah 32:17
- Jeremiah 33:22
- Daniel 4:35
- Luke 1:37
- Romans 1:19-20
- Romans 11:33
- Revelation 4:11
George Washington Carver 1864 - 1943
You have to be someone to get a National Monument named after you, and George Washington Carver
was someone not in his own estimation, but by universal acclaim. His own estimation
of himself was summed up in his words, Without my Savior, I am nothing.
He sought his Creator for guidance in all things, and gave God the credit for all his discoveries.
Rightly does a National Monument deserve to be named for him, because his story is an inspiration to all
Americans. It is one of overcoming odds and serving ones fellow man, achieving
greatness by good works, and devoting oneself to serving others. It is a great American success
story for which black Americans, and all Americans, can justly find inspiration.
For an example of doing science the Genesis way, it would be hard to find a better example than George
Washington Carver. God told Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth,
and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the air and over
every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28). Liberal environmentalists
hate this verse because they misunderstand it. It does not mean to run roughshod over the
land, exploiting it for selfish purposes. It means to manage it as stewards of the
Creator, for He alone is the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills ... for the earth and its
fullness are mine (Psalm 50:10-12), and the earth is the Lords, and those who
dwell therein (Psalm 24:1). Carver knew that It is He who has made us, and not
we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture (Psalm 100:3).
Since He is the Creator and Owner, we are mere stewards, accountable to Him. Now it goes
without saying that a good steward has to know the state of affairs of what he is managing.
So what does the Genesis Mandate mean? It means, in effect, do science.
Science was the very first occupational career the Creator gave to the only beings He had made in His image,
endowed with personality, intellect, will, and emotions. Science (the understanding of the world)
and environmental stewardship (the responsible management of it) are what dominion is all
about. Implicit in this view is that the world is a vast puzzle to solve, an endless store of natural
wonders to explore. It was in this spirit that Carver humbly asked, Mr. Creator, why did
you make the peanut? then went to discover over 300 uses for it. But we get ahead of
Carvers story is all the more remarkable because of the obstacles he had to overcome.
He was born practically a non-person in Civil War times, the nameless son of poor slave parents on a
Missouri farm around 1864. His father had been trampled to death by a team of oxen before young
George had any memories of him. His mother and sister had been taken by slave raiders in the night,
never to be seen again. Barely six months old, the boy and his older brother Jim were adopted
by German immigrants, Moses and Susan Carver. Jim was the stronger one; little George was
short, weak, sickly, shy,
stuttering and nearly mute. Who would have expected great things from this unfortunate child?
Yet the Carvers noticed special aptitudes in him curiosity, keen observational skills, and love of
nature. To this, they added discipline, hard work, and respect for Gods holy book, the Bible.
And they gave him a name to live up to: George Washington.
The Carvers were too poor to give him much more than that, but it proved sufficient; little George was
ready to face a world of prejudice and start from the bottom up without complaining. At age ten,
with a silver dollar and eight pennies in his pocket, Carver walked alone the ten miles to the nearest
colored boys school in Neosho. He would find a barn to sleep in at night, and do any odd jobs
a neighbor might need, from washing dishes and cooking to planting, to pay for food and
tuition. Abuse from other kids or white folks did not break his spirit. Carver knew
how to pray. He always sensed the Lord was with him, and he knew that his loving heavenly
Father would take care of him and direct his paths. Besides, the trees and plants were too
interesting to make him self-conscious over his own hardships.
Passing each test and scaling each hurdle, George won the hearts of classmates in a Kansas high
school. He developed many interests in which he excelled. Those who know him
primarily for his achievements in agricultural science might be surprised to learn that George
Washington Carver was a singer, artist, piano player and debater. His spiritual aptitude
took root in his fellowship with the YMCA. Throughout his life, he felt the sting of racial
prejudice, even witnessing a lynching of another black man by the KKK. The white folk
who knew George stood up for him when racial slurs came at him. He remained friendly,
open, and diligent in everything he did, rising to the top of his class with high grades.
He was accepted to Highland University on a scholarship.
Upon arriving at Highland in Kansas, he was in for another major disappointment.
He entered the Presidents office and announced that he was George Washington Carver,
the one who had received the Presidents own letter of acceptance.
Young man, Im afraid there has been a mistake. You failed to inform us
you were colored. We do not take colored students here at Highland.
The President would not be moved by the fact that George had spent everything he had to
come. His skin was just not the right color. The feeling of dejection can only
be imagined, as he walked around the strange town wondering what to do next. He
never felt more lonely in his life. Again, he prayed. He decided he would find
a college that would take him. He would work, save his money, and he would study
hard, and God helping him, he would succeed.
It would not be easy. He took a homestead in west Kansas and endured a blizzard alone
in his cabin, and more loneliness.. Then word of a new college that would take coloreds
came to his attention, and at age 26, he spent the ten dollars he made from selling his cabin and
land, traveled to Indianola, and entered Simpson College. The rest is history.
Though now older than most of the students, and seemingly the only black student, George
rapidly excelled and made high grades. He transferred to Iowa State and became the first
black man to earn a bachelors degree. Even prejudiced white folk made way for
this rising star. He was invited to teach, and earned a masters degree in agriculture
in 1896. His work on plants and plant diseases was getting recognized. It came
to the attention of Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. Washington, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, had founded Tuskegee Institute fifteen
years earlier as a place to provide blacks an opportunity for higher education. He gave
Carver a strange proposition that a mercenary man would have snubbed with utter disdain:
I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. The first two you
have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve.
These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place work
hard, hard work the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste
to full manhood.
With a good deal of prayer and soul searching, Carver accepted.
Upon arriving in Alabama, George Carver was stunned to find he had no lab, no
books, no equipment, no helpers, and no curriculum. He would have to build the
entire department from scratch. He was even expected to share a room with another
faculty member. On top of that, he was expected to raise chickens and do other tasks
he did not particularly care for, and the students were not that interested in learning what he
had to teach. But Carver had learned to take life as it came and make the most of it.
It was never easy; his relationship with Booker T. was often strained, the latter trying to
keep the institution from going broke, and the former more visionary than resources
permitted. But they needed each other, and complemented each other, as iron sharpens
iron (a fact George never fully realized till after Bookers death).
So from the ground up at Tuskegee, George set to work with the equivalent of two loaves and
a few fishes, handing them over to the Lord to multiply them.
Improvising a lab with old bottles and spare parts, and a microscope donated by his Iowa friends,
he slowly got his balky students on track and began spinning a list of achievements that
overflowed by the bushels.
His classes did experiments with sweet potatoes, trying to increase crop yields.
From five bushels an acre to ten, then twenty and thirty ... they reached eighty bushels
per acre, a feat thought impossible by seasoned farmers. His all-time record was
266 bushels per acre, with the proper cultivation and fertilization. Carvers
abilities in agriculture must have seemed like magic. He experimented with crop
rotation and found ways to replenish the soil. His list of useful products from
common crops began to grow, including delicious meals from cowpeas and industrial products
from sweet potatoes. As a ministry of help to poor farmers, he and his students
put a classroom on a wagon. They traveled from farm to farm, showing farmers
how they could improve their yields.
George Washington Carver was poised to save the South
from the devastation of the Civil War to new dangers on the horizon.
Southern farmers, by tradition, were stuck in a cotton rut. Carver
realized that not only did this deplete the soil, but the devastating boll weevil was slowly
working its way east from Mexico and Texas at about 100 miles per year. He realized
its arrival in the South would wipe out the cotton economy.
Peanuts and other legumes, he demonstrated, replenished the soil. Not only
that, they were extremely versatile and healthy. Grudgingly at first, the farmers took
his advice to try growing the silly goobers, doubtful that anyone would buy them.
Carver tried to convince them that peanuts were an ideal food source. Taking his
cue from Genesis, where God had said to Adam and the animals, I have given every
green plant for food (Genesis 1:29-30, 2:9), he figured there must be more there
than meets the eye. The threat of the boll weevil forced some farmers to take his
advice and grow peanuts, but some became angry when they could not find a market for
them. This drove Carver to launch a series of amazing discoveries.
As he would tell the story later, he went out to pray (as was his daily practice), and asked
God why He made the universe. The Lord replied that was a mighty big question for
a puny man. Carver tried a smaller question, why did you make man? As God kept
narrowing the scope of his inquiry, he finally tried, Mr. Creator, why did you make the
peanut? With that, the Lord was satisfied, and told him to go into his lab and
find out. In a Spirit-filled rush of discovery, Carver separated peanuts into their
shells, skins, oils and meats and found all kinds of amazing properties and possibilities.
Most of us have heard this one of Carvers many claims to fame, that he discovered over 300
uses for the peanut, but have you ever seen the list? You can find it on websites, but
here are a few samples for the pure amazement of what came out of that humble Tuskegee lab:
soap, cooking oil, milk, rubber, glue, insecticide, malaria medicine, flour, salve, paint,
cosmetics, paper, fertilizer, paving material and (of course) peanut butter, peanut brittle,
peanut clusters, and dozens of other food products. He amazed the faculty and students
one day by serving an entire meal appetizer, main course, side dishes, beverage and dessert
out of peanuts: soup, salad, milk, coffee, bread, mock chicken, peanut ice cream, and a variety of candies
and cookies. His peanut milk was indistinguishable from the dairy kind. Farmers no longer had
to worry about having a market for peanuts!
In 1921, the United Peanut Association of America, now a thriving group of farmers
thanks to Carvers help, sent him to Congress to testify about a tariff bill.
The weary Congressmen, bored from days of other tariff
arguments, allotted him ten minutes. Two hours later, their eyes were still bulging
from his displays of products he had made. His lively and sometimes humorous presentation
had them spellbound. The law passed easily.
Peanuts were just one of many
plants Carvers magic with chemistry transformed into useful products. He
invented 35 products from the velvet bean and 118 from the sweet potato. How many
of these things do you have around the house: adhesive, axle grease, bleach, briquettes,
buttermilk, chili sauce, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer,
metal polish, paper, plastic, paint, pavement, peanut butter, shaving cream, shoe polish,
synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain. These and many other products
Carver produced from plant materials. George Washington Carver became the
father of a new branch of applied science called agricultural chemistry
or chemurgy. The extent of his discoveries in this field are breathtaking,
and unlikely to be surpassed by any one person again.
Just a few of these products could have made a man rich, but Carver made them available
freely. As a servant of God, he felt the Creator should have the credit for putting
all this richness into the plants He had made. Carver did not seek fame, but his
work brought him world-wide renown; Teddy Roosevelt visited him at Tuskegee and said,
Theres no more important work than what you are doing right here.
He never made much money in his 40+ years at Tuskegee. Driven by the needs of those
he served there, he turned down a lucrative offer to work for Thomas Edison.
He gave generously from his meager assets.
Despite a high-pitched voice he inherited from a bout with whooping cough in childhood,
he was a popular speaker. Projecting a visage of integrity, with rhetorical intensity
characteristic of a black preacher,
Carver inspired the young to rise above their hardships, as he had, and make their life count.
All who knew George Washington Carver were impressed by his spirituality.
Carver would often rise at 4:00 in the morning and go into his favorite woods to
pray. Each day he would ask, Lord, what do you want me to do
today? and then do it. The goodness of God and the richness of creation
was often on his lips. He said, I love to think of nature as an
unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour,
if we will only tune in. Some misunderstood his remarks about seeking
the guidance of God, and caricatured him as seeking Divine
inspiration in the science lab. But Carvers science was
sound. He explained to those who misrepresented his views (claiming he
thought books were unnecessary) that of course he studied books; what he meant
was that once the books are mastered by the scientist the next step
beyond the books requires inspiration (Wellman, p. 188).
Without dispute, the Genesis account of creation
was a foundation for Carvers scientific approach. Did he take it literally?
Responding to news of the Scopes trial in 1925, Carver affirmed his belief that God had created man
directly, but allowed for some transitional forms God might have made between other species.
Another source quotes him as describing a plant having existed for
millions of years. We must remember, however, that voices for a Biblical
doctrine of creation were few and weak during the early twentieth century.
Both churches and colleges often accommodated what the scientists were telling
them about the age of the earth without questioning the assumptions.
Piltdown Man and other false claims were still unexposed, and they didnt have
evidences that have only recently come to light that overturn the commonly-accepted
ideas of his day. But Carver never hesitated to confess his faith in the
God of the Bible, and attributed all his success and ability to God, says
Henry Morris (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 81). The fact that
God had created plants and called them good provided the impetus for Carver
to do his outstanding science.
There are two ways to respond to discrimination: speak out against evil, or
overcome evil with good. Both are necessary, but Carver exemplified the
latter. He did not have a prejudicial bone in his body, they he was a
target of racial bigotry on many occasions. Rather than join the ranks
of the protestors, he quietly demonstrated that a mans worth is not to
be judged by the color of his skin, but the content of his character.
And what character George Washington Carver had. He won the Roosevelt
Medal in 1939, with the inscription, To a scientist humbly seeking
the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race as well as the
black. Entering glory after a long and productive life, he was
given the epitaph, He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for
neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.
Drop by George Washington Carver National Monument sometime when passing
through Missouri. And dont forget to pack some peanut butter
Learn More About
George Washington Carver
A short biography can be found at
Southern University. Charles Stanleys
Touch site also has a bio from a Christian perspective.
Young people and adults will enjoy Mott Medias
biography written in first person by David Collins.
Heres information for your visit to
George Washington Carver
National Monument. The site has a list of
he invented, sorted by type. Some, like mock goose or diesel fuel, are amazing.
Try some of George Carvers original
recipes, from his own writing. Here are more, including directions, at
Iowa State, Carvers alma mater, held an
All-University Celebration of its
famous first African-American student and faculty member. The site has a biography,
pictures and resources, including this list
Radio Bible Class produced a good
two-part video on Carver. Its apparently not on their online catalog,
so you may have to call them. But try a Google
Search on +"George Washington Carver" +video and you will find lots of hits!
Application: Carvers example could inspire a whole generation of
creation scientists. Considering all he did with the peanut, what about
all those plant uses yet to be discovered, in tropical rain forests or your own
of viewing plants as accidents of evolution, why not see them with all the
built-in design God put there for our enjoyment and benefit?
This is the reason to cherish and protect the rain forests. A Carver-style
will respect plants as Gods masterpieces. It will nourish and
protect the rare and endangered species, and find thousands of uses in the plentiful
species for the benefit of all living things in the ecosystem.
There are millions who are starving simply for want of knowledge.
Like the poor Southern farmers who were set in their ways, some of them just need training
about how to make their agriculture productive. Disneys Epcot Center in
Florida, for example, has a fascinating experimental lab that demonstrates
amazing new techniques that can grow bumper crops in sand with very little water or space.
Picture that in sub-Saharan Africa, where poor families starve during the frequent droughts.
Carvers pioneering example of increasing crop yields could be extended to
third-world countries and improve the quality of life for millions.
We have tools and techniques Carver never would have imagined.
What are we waiting for?
Heres a win-win scenario to think about. Poor farmers in South America are burning large
areas of rain forest to plant crops the old-fashioned way, because they dont
know any better. They have to feed their families. If creation scientists could
find rain-forest plants that grow naturally but have valuable uses, they could be
grown in a small fraction of the land area, using improved crop-yield techniques,
and provide even better income for the farmers. The rain forests are saved,
and prosperity is increased for thousands of people. A similar market economy
might preserve endangered animals from poachers in Africa who are driven to poaching
because it seems the only way to make a living.
Some evolutionary botanists are wasting valuable time
trying to dig up
imaginary evolutionary trees in plant genomes. Instead, why
not send an enthusiastic corps of George Washington Carvers into the world on a treasure hunt.
There might be a cure for cancer out there, a healthy new food crop, or
a cheap energy source just waiting to be discovered.
Lets renew our vows to be good stewards of Gods creation, and
use science to find
happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.
Wernher von Braun 1912 - 1977
Its not exactly rocket science, you know. The cliche implies that rocket science
is the epitome of something that is difficult, obscure, and abstruse; something comprehensible
only by the brainiest
of the smart. Names that qualify for the title father of rocket science include
Tsiolkovsky, Goddard, and von Braun. But Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was mostly a visionary and
chalkboard theorist, and Robert Goddard only targeted the upper atmosphere for his projects; he
was also secretive and suspicious of others to a fault. Of the three, and any others that could be
listed, Wernher von Braun has the prestige of actually taking mankind from the simple
beginnings of rocketry all the way to the moon and the planets. His name is almost synonymous
with rocket science. He is an icon of the space age. As we will see, he should be remembered
for much more than that.
Von Braun (pronounced fon BROWN and roll the R)
is important in this series because he was recent enough to be in the living memory of
many, and we have a great deal of documentation, photographs and motion pictures of him.
Even young people (that is, anyone under 40) who did not live through the glory days of Apollo
are all familiar with three of von Brauns last great projects he took from vision to reality: the
Space Shuttle, orbiting space stations and interplanetary travel. Unquestionably, he had a great
deal of help. One does not do rocket science alone! At the height of the Apollo program, some
600,000 employees were involved in tasks from machining parts to managing large flight
operations centers. Yet by wide consensus and by results achieved, Wernher von Braun was a
giant among giants: highly regarded by his peers, respected by all who worked with him, a
celebrity to the public, showered with honors, and unquestionably responsible for
much of the success of the space program. Few have ever personally taken a dream of epic
proportions to reality. The peaceful exploration of space! It was the stuff of dreams
Kepler, Jules Verne, science fiction novels and countless childhood imaginations, yet today it is
almost too commonplace. Von Braun dreamed, but made it happen. He was the right man with
the right stuff at the right time.
What kind of person was he? Many great scientists are quirkish or aloof in their personal lives,
but were going to reveal a lesser-known side of von Braun, a spiritual side that kept him
humble, grateful, unselfish, and strong. Well see a remarkably well-rounded individual, a
family man who loved swimming and travel and popularizing science for children; a man
who loved life, had charisma and energy and dignity and integrity, handled huge projects yet
kept a winning smile and a sense of humor even in the most stressful of project deadlines. Well
see a model of leadership that success-bound corporate heads would do well to emulate.
Maybe you didnt know (incidentally) that he was also a Christian and creationist. But first, a
review of his record.
Von Braun was the can do mover and shaker that rescued Americas prestige from the
embarrassment of Sputnik (1957) and drove the moon mission against a host of naysayers,
leading to that unforgettable moment when the whole world held its breath: Houston:
Tranquillity Base here the Eagle has landed! In hindsight, many feel that Russia beat the U.S.
to orbit and put the first man in space largely because the top brass had snubbed von Braun,
whose team was eager and ready, and gave the job to the Navy. Those first awful images of
exploding and stray rockets, broadcast to Americas horror on international TV, are now folklore
for captions to illustrate Murphys Law. But once President Eisenhower put von Braun in the
drivers seat, his string of spectacular successes left the Russians in the dust. On January 31,
1958, von Brauns Jupiter-C rocket successfully lifted Americas first satellite, Explorer 1, into
orbit. The historic photo of Pickering, Van Allen and von Braun holding a model of Explorer 1
overhead in a victory salute at a Washington D.C. press conference symbolized the turning of
the tide. When Kennedy became President, Von Braun was already of thinking bigger goals.
He told Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson,
We have an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon.
Largely because of von Brauns confidence, President Kennedy in 1961 challenged the country
to make it to the moon before the decade was out. And it did, on time! A year later, with the
launch of Mariner 2 to Venus in 1962 and Mariner 4 to Mars in 1964, his childhood dream of
interplanetary exploration became reality. Von Braun saw the progress of flight from crossing
the Atlantic to crossing the ocean of space. In the year he died, Voyagers 1 and 2, launched on
rockets built by his technology, began their epic voyages to the outer solar system.
The prestige America gained through the space program, and its political advantage in a
dangerous world dominated by communism, to say nothing of all the spinoff benefits to science
and technology, are benefits we all gained largely to von Brauns vision of space flight. His
impact on science, the economy and politics are symbolized by the two final missions launched
on his Saturn rockets: Skylab (1973), the first orbiting space station, that took science and
technology to new heights and unfamiliar environments, and Apollo-Soyuz (1975), in which
American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts joined hands in earth orbit. His work even
transformed mankinds own view of itself. Who could ever forget the first image of our planet
from the moon, when Apollo 8, a risky mission launched on a brand new rocket called Saturn V
(the most complex machine ever built, yet launched flawlessly every time) enabled a world at
war to see home as just a pale blue gem in the blackness of space, devoid of political boundaries,
fragile and beautiful and alone?
Yes, there were many giants in the space program, but
Frederick C. Durant summarized von Brauns special place in history by saying, Future
historians may well note this century (or millennium) as significant in that mankind took its first
tentative steps into space. In accomplishing these steps to the moon and beyond, Wernher von
Braun was an eminent leader. He not only had a dream, but he made his dream come true for all
That dream began in childhood, when Wernher was given an astronomical telescope by his mother
at the festive occasion of his confirmation into the Lutheran church at age thirteen.
This lit a spark that exploded into his lifelong fascination with the moon, Mars and space
travel. Wernher was full of boundless energy as a child, so much so that his father
considered him unstoppable. He had a mind like a dry sponge, soaking up every bit
of knowledge as eagerly as he could, his father said. His mother stimulated the
childrens interest in science and the arts; Wernher even took piano lessons with the
great German composer Paul Hindemith, and carried this skill through life. (Many years
later in Salt Lake City on a visit, he was invited to try out the great organ in the Mormon
Tabernacle; he promptly sat down and played A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.)
Astronomy was the most unstoppable interest of the young teenager. By age sixteen he
was writing on the history of astronomy, speculating about life on Mars, and building
telescopes. By this time also, his almost magical ability to form and lead a
team, became evident, as Ordway describes it (p. 13); the end product of most
of his projects would be complete success. At 14, he had organized an astronomy club that
made telescopes and built rockets. They even put together old car parts and tried to
create a rocket-propelled automobile. He became so engrossed in these experiments, that he flunked
mathematics and physics! His parents sent him to boarding school without the
Not disheartened, young Werner read Hermann Oberths visionary book The Rocket
into Interplanetary Space and studied Keplers laws
of planetary motion, which for him were like racetracks to the planets. He
resolved to master mathematics and become a space pioneer. His life goal was
to turn the wheel of progress a pretty visionary goal for a 14-year
old. Those who enjoyed the movie October Sky can appreciate the adult von
Brauns interest in the young student rocket-makers, having played that role himself.
By age 15 he had written, in an essay about a journey to the moon, An age-old dream
of mankindto travel to the starsappears to approach fulfillment.
The young student wrote to Oberth showing him a paper on rockets he had written,
and received an encouraging letter, Keep going, young man! His teachers
were impressed, and told his mother he was a genius. Few young man had the energy
of dreams so strong, and knew so confidently what they wanted to accomplish in life,
as Wernher von Braun. Unfortunately for him, political currents in Germany would
lead to a crisis between the dream and the ugliness of war and dictatorship.
Von Braun studied mechanical engineering at the University of Berlin. Throughout
his college career, he required no prodding; once, he showed his professor a letter
he had received from Albert Einstein in answer to his questions,
and while a student, he received a grant to experiment on
liquid fueled rockets. In 1932, he graduated with a PhD in physics.
Always fascinated with flight of any kind,
he learned to fly gliders, and in 1933, received his pilot's license for
motorized aircraft. While the rise of Hitler was occurring during
the 1930s, it must be stressed that von Braun was focused on rockets, not politics. One must
remember that rocketry was weird science in those days, with no commercial
or strategic appeal. Von Braun knew that his small amateur team, severely short on
money and materials, could never advance his dream of space travel without the help of a
large organization. He made a sober, consequential decision to approach the
In the winter of 1931-32, Von Braun gained the interest of the German army,
which had a small rocket development program under Walter Dornberger. Their
collaboration at the armys Peenemünde Rocket Center is legendary; it launched
Wernher von Braun into the forefront of the worlds foremost rocketry program.
(Although Robert Goddard was testing liquid-fueled rockets in America, he was so
secretive that von Braun had not even heard of him till after the war).
From the first, the Peenemünde engineers were developing rockets for peaceful
purposes. Though Hitler was in the news, von Braun at the time considered him
a pompous fool and none of the engineers imagined their work being used
as instruments of horror in the hands of a Nazi regime. Stuhlinger explains the
army connection: The situation of the young rocketeers was similar to that
of the aviation pioneers when the airplane could only be developed because of
military support (Ordway, p. 24). Rocketry demanded facilities that
the former amateur team lacked. Until rather late in the war, von Brauns
rocket team was largely ignored by the growing Nazi regime, which did not see rockets
has having weapons potential and considered rocket research heretical.
For most of the 1930s, therefore, rocket R&D was removed from the thought of war; it was
von Braun fulfilling his childhood dream. The team moved to Peenemünde in
1935, and as late as 3 October 1942, after a successful launch of their
baby the A-4 (53 miles elevation, 118 miles downrange), von Braun was still idealistic:
Do you realize what we accomplished today? Today the spaceship has been
born! and Dornberger chimed in innocently, This 3 October 1943 [sic] is the
first day of a new era of travel, the era of space travel! Up till now, growing
Nazi intrusions had been a nuisance and irritant to the decidedly non-political
team, but the successful launch suddenly switched Hitlers attention to it.
He organized a committee of overseers; von Braun and Dornberger eluded some of the
intrusions with claims that the work demanded absolute secrecy, but by the end of
1943, after the British had inflicted severe damage at the test center, Hitler
ordered the production underground. This became the notorious Mittelwerk
production center, in which A-4 rockets (renamed V-2s by the Nazis for vengeance weapon
#2) were built by slave labor in a last-ditch
effort to safe Germany from defeat. In February 1944, Himmler, who had visited the Peenemünde
center the previous summer, tried to lure von Brauns support; when it was
rebuffed, the Gestapo arrested him in the middle of the night.
Von Braun was kept in jail two weeks without any explanation as to why he had been
arrested. Finally, he was hauled before a mock trial, where the accusation
was, he did not intend the A-4 to be a weapon of war, that he had only space
travel in mind ... and that he regretted its military use (Ordway, 32). He was also
accused of spying and trying to escape. In the nick of time, Dornberger
entered the courtroom with a document. When the official read it, von Braun
was released. What happened? Dornberger had been working since the arrest to
effect his release, and after many unsuccessful attempts, persuaded the head of the
Gestapo that von Braun was absolutely essential to the success of the
A-4 program. Also, Albert Speer had persuaded Hitler, who grudgingly agreed,
that the secret weapon Germany had been boasting about publicly could
not proceed without its premiere rocket scientist. For six months, until the
assassination attempt on Hitler (when the von Braun affair was forgotten),
von Braun was in a very precarious position.
He had two choices: refuse to cooperate and be shot, or steer the circumstances he was
placed in for good, with what influence he had. Who could fault his decision?
He had no authority, and no power other than advice, which he used to mitigate the
evils around him. For instance, when he was made aware of the hellish
circumstances under which prisoners were forced to build rockets in underground tunnels
at Mittelwerk, he realized quickly that humane arguments with the morally-bankrupt SS leaders
were futile. He persuaded them with shrewd pragmatic arguments that the project
could not be completed on time unless the workers were fed and given rest.
Similar shrewdness is found with Hushais counsel to Absalom in the Bible (II Samuel
16). Because of this, some of the suffering was alleviated. Yet von Braun
had no authority over the project that the Nazis had wrested from his teams
hands; he was only asked his opinion on very specific problems, and was escorted
under guard at all times. On September 8, 1944, V-2s were launched against
Paris and London. Von Braun later described hearing the news as the darkest
day of his life. To his chagrin, the rockets worked perfectly; they just hit
the wrong planet.
From time to time, revisionists criticize von Braun for not defying the Nazi regime,
which would surely have meant his death. Rumors surface that he was a secret
Nazi collaborator, or a member of the Nazi party, etc. Those tempted to believe
this should read the detailed account of the period in the book by Frederick Ordway (American
long-time co-worker) and Ernst Stuhlinger (part of the Peenemünde team),
Wernher von Braun, Crusader for Space (Krieger Publishing, Florida, 1996).
These men both knew von Braun personally over many years and participated in the
events. Von Braun was no Nazi. Since 1940, Himmler had tried to woo him with gifts and
a rank in the SS, which von Braun confided with friends made him deeply upset. But
with their advice, he avoided making an issue to prevent Himmler from flying into
a rage. When sweet talk did not work, force was applied, and von Brauns
options were none: do as you are told, or die.
For the crusader for the peaceful exploration of space
from his youth to his death, the years 1943-1944 turned his dream into a
nightmare. His plowshares were stolen and turned into swords.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Finding himself powerless to stop
Hitler and the war, what little influence he had, he used, and as soon as the war
was over, he quickly and willingly surrendered to the American liberators.
Consider these points in response to critics:
It is only fair for war victims, especially the Jews, to investigate the motives
and actions of anyone connected to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany. We
hope this brief review helps to dispense with rumors that von Braun was ever personally
at fault. He was a victim as well. Read the book by Ordway and Stuhlinger,
probably the most authoritative biography by those close to von Braun, for further
information. It contains many details and quotations by contemporaries, and
gives a spellbinding account of events that are still within the memory of some
- Von Braun was arrested and jailed by the Gestapo.
- He was charged with resisting the military use of his rockets, and trying to escape.
- Himmlers awarding von Braun an honorary rank in the SS no more made him a Nazi
than awarding Martin Luther King an honorary membership in the KKK would make him a
- The evil uses of his rockets occupied only a few months at the end of the war.
- During his release from jail, when the military used von Braun for his advice,
he was escorted under military guard at all times and under strict
orders what he could say or do.
- He used his influence to argue for more time (delaying tactics) and better conditions
for the prisoners.
- When he tried to argue for better treatment of the prisoners, he was threatened that
it was none of his business, and that he had better shut up or he would be wearing the
same prison stripes.
- His lifelong dream was the peaceful exploration of space. He was devastated
when he heard the news that his rockets had been used against Allied cities.
- After the war, he sought out the Americans, and willingly surrendered not only
himself but his whole team. He knew this meant
abandoning his fatherland (and who, in spite of evil leaders, does not have some
heart for his own country?). He became a patriotic, energetic American citizen.
- As soon as he reached America, he was eager to help the American space program.
- He repeatedly gave a full accounting of all his activities during the war, when
interrogated by the government and by suspicious critics.
- His record since the war speaks for itself. A leopard does not change its
spots. If von Braun were anything less than a man of integrity, bad signs would
have surfaced in the subsequent 32 years in America.
- The British Interplanetary Society awarded him an honorary membership right after the
war. Surely if anyone had doubts about his motives and allegiances, it would be
those who were victimized by V-2 rockets raining down on their city.
The story of the surrender is one of those remarkable turning points in history, that is haunting
to think about in retrospect. 100 members of the Peenemünde Rocket Center
waited in hiding after the German surrender as Allies and Russians combed the land.
They had recently escaped the fear that the SS would destroy them and everything they
had done in one last desperate blow. Marshall Space Flight Centers biography
says, After stealing a train with forged papers, von Braun led 500 people through
war-torn Germany to surrender to the Americans. The SS were issued orders to kill
the German engineers, who hid their notes in a mine shaft and evaded their own army
while searching for the Americans. Von Braun had convinced some SS officers
they needed to retreat to a place safe from attack. Secured in an alpine village,
news reached them April 30, 1945, that Hitler had committed suicide. The guards
left. On May 2, Wernhers youngest brother, Magnus von Braun, rode his bicycle
with a white handkerchief down the hill to look for the Americans; upon finding
them, he told them that the German rocket scientists were waiting to surrender.
A Wisconsin-born private first class who spoke German, Frederick Schneikert, came to the compound and ordered,
Come forward with your hands up! as if they needed any convincing.
Von Braun was given free choice along with all the others
whether they wanted to immigrate to America. The historic photo shows von Braun
accepting the terms, his arm in a cast due to a fracture he had suffered during the
traumatic events. Along with the German rocket scientists, their priceless
research documents were recovered from the mine where they had been hidden.
This required hurriedly digging a new tunnel, because they had blasted the entrance
closed to secure it.
Also, parts for about 100 V-2 rockets were spirited to Allied safety
in Austria by May 22, with monumental effort, just days before the Russians gained
control of the territory according to the Yalta agreement. Had the Russians
captured the German rocket scientists and their work, history would likely had been
very different. Knowing the aftermath of the cold war and
the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear weapons, one wonders
whether there would be an America today.
The German scientists were brought to America under top-secret Operation Paperclip.
When Americans became aware of their presence, there was understandable alarm, and it
took some convincing by the military and the government that they were now willing
allies in strategic work. Von Braun was raring to go forward with his research.
This attitude was shared by the entire team, and von Braun was restless at the seemingly
interminable delays and interrogations. Slow progress was made, as freedom was
granted by degrees, until full citizenship; the days of Truman and Eisenhower, the post-war
boom, the threat of communism, none of these deterred von Braun from his dream.
By the fifties, the Air Force, Navy and Army had their own rocket development programs,
often with strong rivalries between them, but von Braun
gained national stature as Americas leading rocket scientist. He became
an icon of space to millions of children at their black and white TV sets on March 9,
1955, with the first of several Walt Disney shows about manned space travel
at the time, still the subject of science fiction. But not for long.
Von Brauns strategic importance to the nation gained a huge and unexpected boost
on October 4, 1957, when historic bleeps were heard beaming down from space, heralding
both hopes and fears. The Russians Sputnik 1 was in orbit.
Reactions were swift and disorderly. Von Braun was not surprised; he had foreseen
this two years earlier, and had warned that the Russians might beat us into space.
His reaction was a politely but sternly worded I-told-you-so, but more than that, an
optimistic appeal about the promise of space flight. But his German team, which was
ready with its Redstone (Jupiter-C) rocket at Huntsville, Alabama (where his team resided from
1950 to 1970), was snubbed by the top brass in favor of the Vanguard.
In the rush to catch up just two months after Sputnik 1, and a month after Sputnik 2
carrying the first animal (the dog Laika), the Vanguard launch button was pushed.
To the shocked eyes of already embarrassed Americans, it exploded in a cataclysm of
fire and smoke. The Army Redstone project was given the next shot. On January 31,
carrying a small scientific payload named Explorer 1 developed by the Jet Propulsion
Laboratory, Von Brauns Jupiter-C launched the satellite flawlessly into orbit.
The mood in the country was electric. Newspapers trumpeted the news, featuring
the victory picture showing William
Pickering (JPL Director), James Van Allen (whose instruments on this flight detected
the radiation belts bearing his name), and Wernher von Braun holding a replica of
Explorer 1 high overhead. Of this picture, which symbolizes one of
Americas defining moments, Van Allen said, Wernher, as usual, carries
the brunt of the load.
The 1961 Kennedy speech committing America to put a man on the moon, the Mercury,
Gemini, and Apollo programs all these are oft-told adventure epics. The
subjects of countless documentaries, they need not be repeated in detail here,
though they bear retelling, especially among a rising generation with no first hand
knowledge of those heady days of the space race. Readers are encouraged to
relive the adventure with the well-done HBO documentary series From the Earth
to the Moon, and better yet, to visit the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral,
Florida. Take the all-day bus tour where you can walk where Von Braun walked,
see the hangar that served as his office, look at the launch buttons he pushed in
bunkhouses just yards from the early rockets, stand in awe of the Apollo launch pad 39A
(now used for the Space Shuttle), and stare upward at the indescribable hugeness
of the Vehicle Assembly Building where Saturn V rockets rolled out a mile on huge crawlers
to the pad. Then end your day at the superb Apollo Saturn V Theater,
where a series of presentations let you relive the tension of countdown, as you
watch the original flight operations computers come to life with dramatic music
and sound effects and images on a giant screen, to the dramatic touchdown on the
moon with a lifesize Lunar Module descending to a cratered surface.
In between is the most awesome sight of all: a full-scale Saturn V rocket,
in Smithsonian-mint condition,
horizontally mounted above you in a hangar a quarter mile long. This is a
sight that must be seen to be believed; it is a monument
that should be visited by every American. It will make you proud, and humble.
That something this large, heavy and
complicated, could ever have been built, on time, on schedule, and launched with
100% success every time, is a tribute to thousands of talented and committed people,
and to their leader, their inspiration: Wernher von Braun.
Speaking of leadership, von Braun is a case study par excellence.
His remarkable ability to build, lead, and inspire a team is legendary.
The size and importance of the projects he led to success have few equals, but
even small business managers or scout leaders would do well to learn from his
leadership style. A large and imposing man,
von Braun brought a commanding presence merely by walking into the room, yet was
an inspirer, not a dictator. Ernst Stuhlinger said, ...he possessed ...
an irresistible charm, coupled with almost magic powers of persuasion, which
helped him conquer many hesitant or doubtful minds (Ordway, p. 330).
His leadership ability combined tremendous drive, humor, grace under pressure, dignity, humility,
the power to encourage and inspire, and single-minded vision.
What is the most important thing a man needs, he was once asked, when he
wants to build a spaceship and travel to the moon? The will to
do it! was his instant reply. We have a job to do! was his
positive appeal, in a tone that conveyed excitement and teamwork, and the need to
put aside lesser things.
He could be ruthlessly direct, as when he chided JPL and Army teams for their petty
rivalries during the push to launch Explorer, Are you grown men, or
young schoolboys? Is your precious little ego more important to you than
a satellite in orbit? Now, you go back and work out your differences.
If you cant, I will replace you on this project! But even in
this they knew he was calling them up to a higher standard, not talking them down;
and he subtly complimented their maturity by implying they could solve their
problems without his micromanagement. He led by example, Stuhlinger says:
He had the rare and precious gift of instilling in his many co-workers his own
enthusiasm for hard work and high quality. But he was not only a tough
and demanding task master, he was a path finder and problem solver, and he
always overflowed with an exuberant joy of life that lighted up many dark
chasms on the road to the stars. (Ibid.)
Most of the time, even under stress, von Braun was upbeat and positive
with his team. Michael Collins (Apollo 11 astronaut) said, he
realized that rockets could only be as successful as the people who built them,
and he assembled an extraordinarily talented team, people who worked well with
each other, and who were totally devoted to Wernher (Ordway, p. 330).
He had a warm smile and firm handshake
that would make even a janitor feel important, part of something big.
And he rarely took credit for the successes. He was quick to honor his co-workers
above himself. But the record of his leadership speaks loud and clear:
Collins lists just some of the later accomplishments of those who worked under the leadership
of this warm and friendly man, interested in everyone around him:
Thirty-three Saturn flights, all successful, all without
loss of life, all without weapons ... Saturns sent twenty-seven Americans to
the Moon, twelve of them to walk on it. Saturns sent nine astronauts up
to Skylab, which itself was a converted Saturn upper stage. And, finally,
the last Saturn sent an American crew up to join a Russian spacecraft in
In response, his adopted country showered honors on him, such that he surpassed
Lord Kelvins record (21) for honorary doctorates: von Braun received 25,
along with numerous other medals, awards, and honors from around the world.
In the waning days of his illness, almost too weak to receive it, he accepted
the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford, responding to a friend
humbly, Isn't this a great country! Here I have come in from another
country and they give me this wonderful honor. Isnt this a wonderful
country! Today, von Brauns
bust is prominently on display at NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville
where he made his greatest contributions. The Von Braun Center hosts the citys
fine arts, and the Von Braun Astronomical Society that he helped found continues
its telescope events. The Von Braun Memorial Lectures continue at the
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Tour guides at the Kennedy Space Center hold him in high esteem.
Elderly NASA employees who can, brag about having met Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Though nominally Lutheran from his childhood, Wernher von Braun appears to have
gotten serious about his faith only later in life.
Ordway says, Throughout his younger years, von Braun did not show signs
of religious devotion, or even an interest in things related to the church or
to biblical teachings. In fact, he was known to his friends as a merry
heathen (p. 270). In the days of Apollo, however,
through the 1960s and 70s, a new element began to surface in his
conversations, and also in his speeches and his writings: a growing interest
in religious thought. He was not overt or
invasive about it, but it showed, and his scientific colleagues and the press
appear somewhat baffled by it, treating it like some kind of personal quirk,
something they did not expect from a leading rocket scientist pushing the limits
of human achievement.
After the Apollo 11 success, for instance, a reporter
asked him what he was thinking when he gave the final yes for
launch. The reporter must have been surprised at his unabashed answer,
I quietly said the Lords prayer. Ordway
comments that he could have been thinking of a dozen matters at that hectic
moment, but his thought was, Thy will be done.
Having known von Braun so well, Ordway elaborates the prayer for him:
It would have been true to his nature if he had added,
You gave me this love for exploration and adventure and spaceflight,
and also this gift to transform the dreams into reality. I have lived
and worked as one little part of Your boundless creation. If we
succeed with this journey to the Moon, it will be to Your glory.
If we dont, it is Your will. As far as I am concerned, I have
used all the talents You have put into me, and I have done my very best.
Whether these thoughts actually came to his mind at that moment, nobody
will ever know. (Ordway, pp. 269-270.)
Von Braun was not pushy about religion, but neither was he embarrassed or annoyed by people
asking if he believed in God: Yes, absolutely! would be his
cheerful answer, And then, he would begin to talk in his characteristic
von Braun style, with perfect grammar and syntax, letting his carefully
chosen words flow like a sparkling mountain stream, while he described
his religious convictions with an almost disarming simplicity
(Ordway, p. 270). Especially around 1975 when illness was advancing,
His desire to see the world of science and technology in full
harmony with the world of religion, particularly as it is manifested
in Christian faith, grew even stronger, Ordway says (p. 272).
Whether a direct quote or a paraphrase is not clear, but Ordway has von
Here Ordway seems to misunderstand his good friend. Faith is not irrational;
it is the rational step beyond the limits of evidence. Von Braun
understood that science can never answer ultimate questions of origins
and destiny, not even of purpose for why things are the way they are.
Of course von Brauns entire work for space was solidly based
on the exact laws of natural sciences (p. 273), Ordway knows, but
there are limits to science. When von Braun might say, It
is best not to think, but just to believe, his belief was
not irrational belief in something or anything; it had an object: the
revelation of God in the Bible. As a devoted Christian believer,
von Braun had confidence in the word of God. Once a person has the
settled conviction that the Bible is Gods revelation, yes
it is best just to believe it, especially since its message is not
applicable to scientific inquiry. A message like For God so
loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16) is
not an outworking of natural laws and mathematics. It is a
communication from infinite intelligence (and love) to finite
intelligence. Responding to that communication is surely the
most rational thing a scientist can do.
Finite man cannot begin to comprehend an omnipresent, omniscient,
omnipotent, and infinite God ... I find it best to accept God through
faith, as an intelligent will, perfect in goodness and wisdom, revealing
Himself through His creation ...
It was surprising to some of von Brauns associates
that in spiritual matters, he would reach so deeply into the realm of
Von Braun often stressed that science and religion are not
antagonists. On the contrary, they are sisters
He had no problem with knowing and believing
living side by side; in fact, he thought it most irrational
to deny the obvious: It is as difficult for me to understand
a scientist who does not acknowledge the presence of a superior
rationality behind the existence of the universe as it is to
comprehend a theologian who would deny the advances of science
(American Weekly, Jan. 10, 1960). Science can observe
rationality and order and design, but the details of the Who
behind the grandeur of the cosmos requires revelation.
That von Braun believed in the revelation of Scripture, including
Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins, will be apparent
from an essay we will quote in its entirety from an Introduction
he wrote for a book on creation.
In regards to creation vs. evolution, von Braun opposed the one-sided
teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public schools. In 1972,
he wrote a letter to the California School Board, which was considering
a controversial bill on the teaching of evolution. He used his
influence as a scientist and well-known public figure to argue that
students need to hear the case for creation:
To be forced to believe only one conclusionthat everything in
the universe happened by chance-would violate the very objectivity
of science itself. Certainly there are those who argue that the
universe evolved out of a random process, but what random process
could produce the brain of a man or the system of the human eye?
We plan to reproduce the entire letter separately, along with other
selected writings, since it is always
best to read comments in context, and Dr. Von Brauns own
eloquence could only be tarnished by our embellishment.
Some people say that science has been unable to prove the existence
of a Designer... They challenge science to prove the existence of
God. But, must we really light a candle to see the sun?
For largely political reasons, the mood of the NASA top brass was
changing after the euphoria of Apollo; by the time of Skylab, von
Brauns influence was waning in favor of younger minds and
untested ideas. Noting the change, von Braun thought it best
to graciously retire rather than to fight (though superiors later
acknowledged the wisdom of his advice: he advocated a scaled-down
shuttle, rather than an expensive supermodel, and James Webb later
admitted this saved the shuttle program from the budget axe).
An effusive outpouring of affection from his Huntsville colleagues
characterized his retirement party in 1975. Von Braun went to
work for a very dear friend, Dr. Henry Ulm, at Fairchild Industries
in Virginia. Unfortunately, the career change was short.
That year, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in spite of a few promising
remissions, it became clear at age 64 his days were numbered.
He looked on the bright side. It gave him quality time with
his wife and two daughters and son, time he had long missed
because of his heavy work load.
Reflecting on his years of building the space
program, he asked colleagues whether he had done the right thing,
considering all the needs of the suffering around the world.
Friends reinforced his own belief that it was worth it.
As it did with Morses telegraph,
new technology brings in its coattails many benefits: jobs,
infrastructure, whole towns of supporting processes, including highways,
restaurants, churches, schools, and charities. Because of the space program,
thousands of people have access to better education and higher-paying
jobs, and the spin-off technologies have improved the lives of millions.
The cost of the space program, a tiny fraction of what the country spends
on entitlements and foreign aid, is more than compensated for by the
many benefits that sprang from it, and continue to spring from it,
because the legacy of von Braun lives on in the continued exploration
of space. At this writing, over 100 space shuttle launches have
gathered valuable scientific data about our world from above, and
additional spacecraft are exploring Mars
and Jupiter and Saturn in ways that would make von Braun thrilled.
And what value could anyone put on inspiring a whole generation with the
dreams of exploring space? Or taking the world on a great
adventure, fulfilling a monumental goal on schedule,
in spite of enormous obstacles, during a wartime era when a world was in
crisis? For a magical moment, the world stopped its riots and
bombings and stared in fixed silence at the image of Neil Armstrong
stepping off the ladder onto the surface of the moon. Humanity
looked back on the blue gem of earth in its stark contrast to the
blackness of space. Yes, Dr. von Braun, it was worth it.
Wernher von Braun wrote two more things in his last year. One was a book
co-authored with Frederick Ordway called New Worlds, Discoveries
From the Solar System (published posthumously, 1979). It
being a secular science book, von Braun did not discuss religion or faith.
His attitudes about creation were clearly coincident with todays
Intelligent Design Movement, but beyond that, it is not clear how he
felt about Genesis. The book assumes long ages, but interestingly,
there are points here and there where he casts a little doubt about what
the standard evolutionary theories claim. The other writing was a
short introduction to a little paperback book on creation, probably as
a favor to the author, Harold Hill, a friend he apparently
met at Fairchild. Though the body of the book
is eminently forgettable, von Brauns introduction is not. It comprises
one of his clearest statements about science, creation, the Bible, and
the gospel of Jesus Christ. It will also be included in its
entirety on another page as part of our series.
Von Braun was visited by many dignitaries and friends as his health
declined, and his funeral was like that of a head of state, attended by
Presidents, astronauts, NASA administrators, personal friends and other
German rocket scientists. The accolades Ordway has reproduced in
his biography are impressive. The NASA Administrator said he
continued in the tradition of Newton and Einstein. President
Carter said all the people of the world had profited from his work.
Major General John Medaris said, His imagination strolled easily
among the stars, yet the farther out into the unknown and
unknowable vastness of Creation his thoughts went, the more he was
certain that the universe, and this small garden spot within it,
came from no cosmic accident, but from the thought and purpose of an
all-knowing God. Von Braun died as he had hoped, with a clear
mind able to experience the transition to the afterlife. According to
Ordway, his last credo was, Thy will be done.
... yes, in earth as it is in heaven.
Learn More About|
Wernher von Braun
Be sure to visit our special page of quotes, Von Braun
In His Own Words.
A must-see is the Marshall Space
Flight Center (Huntsville, Alabama) history page about von Braun.
Their biography includes historical photos, interviews, recollections, a
bibliography, and links to other sources. Also read the pictorial
biography on their Exploration
Read this touching story by Scott
Hancock, a NASA employee who took Wernher von Braun on a virtual
space flight when he was becoming weak with cancer. He considers
him a hero.
James Irwin 1930 - 1991
To follow up the biography of Wernher von Braun, lets
hear about one of the few men who got to ride on top of one of his
behemoth Saturn V rockets: Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin.
This individual was not a scientist in a professional sense;
he was an astronaut, and not just an astronaut, but one of the
12 people in history who has walked on the moon. But what is
a scientist? If we mean by the word a seeker for truth, someone
who uses observation and experimentation to uncover explanations
for natural phenomena, then anyone can be a scientist more or
less. James Irwin qualifies more than most. He
deployed scientific experiments on the surface of the moon,
and helped earth-bound scientists uncover many important facts
about our celestial neighbor. To qualify for his rigorous
Apollo training, he had to know more than most about celestial
mechanics, astronomy, and geology. Even after his historic
mission, James Irwin used his scientific training on some rigorous
expeditions of discovery most historians dont tell you about.
When you lean far back and look up, you can see the earth like
a beautiful, fragile Christmas tree ornament hanging against
the blackness of space. Its as if you could reach
out and hold it in your hand. Thats a feeling, a
perception, I had never anticipated. And I dont
think its blasphemous for me to say I felt I was seeing
the earth with the eyes of God. I believe, looking back
on it now, the good Lord did have His hand in it.
For me to travel such a roundabout way, and finally end up
in the space program, and then go to the moonits
amazing it ever happened.
Thus begins Jim Irwins book To Rule the Night
(Holman, Nashville, 1973, 1982), an autobiographical account
of the events leading up to and following his historic Apollo
15 mission to the moon. Written with the help of William A.
Emerson, Jr., the books title is taken from Genesis 1:14,
And God made two great lights: the greater light to rule
the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.
(That the moon shines by reflection makes it no less a “light”
than a lamp; we speak still of a bright full moon.)
For millennia, people saw the lesser light from earth.
What a rare privilege to see the earth from the lesser
light! Surely Gods handiwork must seem all the more
sublime to see our home, blue and brilliant, standing out against
Irwin’s comment that it was amazing it ever happened stems from
the fact that up into his Air Force career, he did not seem to
have either qualifications or interest in the space program to
have ended up in such a privileged position. He did not
get particularly high grades, and seemed rather bored with
military life. He was expecting to fulfill his term and
get a job as a commercial pilot when he had a chance to fly
a P-51, the hottest new aircraft of the time. Feeling all
that power as he accelerated almost vertically, that was the
turning point. He was hooked. He lived to fly.
Even after becoming passionate about flying, it was still amazing
Irwin ever made it into the astronaut corps. He had a serious
accident as a test pilot at Edwards that left him hospitalized
and grounded. He had high blood pressure and heart
problems. And despite repeated attempts, he was turned
down by NASA, until he was just about at the age limit (36).
With only one month to spare, and with his superiors going to bat
for him, he finally got a call in spring 1966 from Deke Slayton, inviting him to
come to Houston. “I’m ready,” he said eagerly.
“When do you want me?” He had trained hard, exercised hard
and tested hard; by this time, he felt he had the best qualifications
of all the Air Force candidates.
We’ll fast-forward past the astronaut training (those interested
can read the book) and let Irwin describe another rare privilege
he had: riding on top of one of Wernher von Braun’s mighty Saturn V rockets.
On the morning of July 21, 1971, strapped into his seat beside
Col. David R. Scott (mission commander) and Major Alfred M. Worden
(command module pilot), Col. James B. Irwin gripped the controls
at the word, “Ignition.”
We sensed and then heard all that tremendous power being released
underneath us on the pad. Slowly, tremulously, the rocket
began to stir....
The ship accelerated up to 18,000 mph into earth orbit,
but reached almost 25,000 mph during trans-lunar injection
(TLI). In the book, Irwin describes all the experiences
of flight, the approach of the moon, and the feeling of
walking on the surface in personal, human terms.
He was the eighth man of 12 to walk on the moon.
We get to share vicariously what it must have been like,
because he realized he was a representative of America
and of all people of the earth, fulfilling the dreams of
The muffled roar flows through you. You just
hang there. Then you sense a little motion, a little vibration,
and you start to move. Once you realize you are moving,
there is a complete release of tensions. Slowly, slowly,
then faster and faster; you feel all that power underneath you....
As you build up to 4 G’s, you weigh four times as
much as you do on the earth, and you are plastered against the
couch....it is difficult to raise your arms to touch a switch or
move a lever....
Just then you come into staging and the engine
shuts downWHAM! All of a sudden you are thrown forward
against your straps. It feels as if you are going to go
right into the instrument panel; you unconsciously put your hands
up to absorb the impact. You are holding, just lying there.
The engine shuts down, the structure unloads, and the spent stage
drops off. That’s a hundred feet of rocket dropping off.
After an interval of a few seconds the next stage lights off
BAM! You are pushed back on the couch again.... The
guys who briefed us told us that when you go through staging it
feels like a train wreck.
Apollo 15 was a highly successful and interesting mission.
Irwin and Scott were the first to use the new Lunar Rover, an
“$8 million dune buggy” as he called it. Apollo 12 astronaut
Alan Bean (for whom Irwin was alternate), reminisced,
“Dave and Jim could travel faster, gather more samples, and
make more scientific observations with their lunar wheels.
It was a great mission.” (Bean, p. 32). They found a bright
crystalline rock sitting on a pedestal, later dubbed the Genesis Rock,
that was significant for planetary scientists studying the moons
origin.* Interestingly, their scoops only went in about
12 inches before hitting very resistant hardpan (p. 78).
They saw layering on the mountains that was difficult to explain
geologically. Irwin saw colors on the moon: not only the
grays and whites, but light greens and browns.
The strenuous work
Irwin put in on the moon may have caused strain that
contributed to his later heart problems. Nevertheless, the
two astronauts fulfilled a huge amount of observation, rock
collecting and experiments, and had a little time for fun, too.
Jim tried broad jumping and got three feet high and 10 feet across in
that bulky suit and backpack that would have made him weigh 380 lbs on earth,
but only 64 on the moon in 1/6 earth gravity. The suits restricted
movement a lot. They had to walk by jumping from the ball of one
foot to the other. It felt, Irwin said, like walking on a
trampolinethe same lightness, the same bouncy feeling
(p. 64). They had to be careful in their play, though; one tear
in the suit, and the blood would boil, and an astronaut would have
10 to 20 seconds to live. Most of the lunar surface was soft
soil, however, so this was only a remote danger. On live camera,
Dave Scott dropped a hammer and feather together to demonstrate to
schoolchildren all over the world that “Mr. Galileo was right”
objects of different masses really do fall at the same speed.
Jim stepped on the feather by mistake and lost it, much to Daves
chagrin, who wanted to save it for posterity. Irwin thought,
I’m wondering if hundreds of years from now somebody will find
a falcon’s feather under a layer of dust on the surface of the moon
and speculate on what strange creature blew in there” (p. 85).
It will probably be obvious. Without erosion on the moon, the
footprints and all the flight hardware left behind will still be
intact, providing clear evidence of “intelligent design” having been
Scott’s historic photo of Irwin saluting against the backdrop of
Mt. Hadley (higher than Mt. Everest), with the lunar module, rover
and American flag all in place, became a poster print Irwin sent to all
who requested one back on earth, signed, His love from the
moon – Jim Irwin.
Jim felt God’s love and presence in a powerful way out there.
Though separated from home by 215,000 miles, he sensed a nearness
and presence of God that he never anticipated. Some other
Apollo astronauts also had spiritual experiences during their
missions, but Irwin knew the God of the Bible personally.
In the midst of their hectic schedule, he had time to briefly quote
his favorite Bible verse, Psalm 121:1, I will lift up mine eyes
unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. It was
particularly fitting against the massive hills of the Apennine Mountains
and canyons of Hadley Rille, but we must hasten to verse 2, which gives the
answer to the question: My help cometh from the Lord, who made
heaven and earth. Graciously deferring to the hard-working
ground crew back on Earth, Jim appended, “but of course we get quite a bit
from Houston, too.” Several times
when problems arose deploying experiments, he prayed for help.
Almost immediately, ideas would come to mind that worked.
He describes some of these moments:
It was almost like a revelation. God was telling me what to
do. I never asked Houston because I knew there would be a delay.
I didnt have time for Houston to get an answer to me; I needed
an immediate answer. I could see several logical ways to go
about solving these mechanical problems, but I wanted to know the
best way. I prayed, and immediately I knew the answer.
I am not talking about some vague sense of direction.
There was this supernatural sensation of His presence. If I
needed Him I could call on Him, call on His power.
He describes the sensation of looking up at home:
(To Rule the Night,p. 19):
In the three days of exploration, there were a couple
of times when I actually looked up to see the earthand it was a
difficult maneuver in that bulky suit; you had to grab onto something
to hold yourself steady and then lean back as far as you could.
That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if
you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.
Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the
creation of God and the love of God.
Alan Bean, mentioned earlier, has given the world a legacy unlike
any of the other twelve Apollo astronauts. He became an artist.
His large-format book of paintings, with text by Andrew Chaikin
and introduction by John Glenn,
Apollo, An Eyewitness Account by Astronaut /
Explorer / Artist / Moonwalker Alan Bean (Greenwich Workshop,
1998), is a must for Apollo aficionados. Bean’s impressionistic
works capture the spirit and feeling of events from all the Apollo
missions in ways that photographs never could. Intimately
acquainted with the mission vehicles and lunar activities, as well
as the lighting and sensations of being on the moon as only
one could who has been there, Beans art combines accurate detail with
feeling. He captures moments both momentous and whimsical that the
cameras missed, and captions each painting with first-person accounts
of the experiences that inspired each work. Alan Bean had a
special place in his heart for Jim Irwin. More than any of the
other Apollo team members, Alan considered Jim a brother.
Adjacent to a dignified painting of Irwin in the Apollo spacesuit,
Mt. Hadley reflected in the visor, Bean wrote this tribute:
(Ibid., p. 60.)
MY BROTHER, JIM IRWIN
Jim Irwin was assigned as my backup on Apollo 12.
He knew his job extremely well. I knew that if anything
happened to me at the last minute, Jim Irwin would do an excellent
job on our mission and fit right in with Pete Conrad and Dick
Gordon.(Bean, p. 152.)
It was easy to like Jim. He had a personality
that suggested you could have a lot of confidence in him.
He wasn’t an individual who tried to convince you that what he was
doing was right or what you were doing was wrong, it was more like
he wanted to work with you, and find the best way to do something
He flew a wonderful flight on Apollo 15 in July, 1971.
He and Dave Scott were there 3 days and had what I felt was the
greatest mission of Apollo up to that point. Not only because
theirs was the first extended lunar scientific expedition, but
because of their skill. While they were on the moon,
Dave Scott and Jim Irwin worked extremely hard and displayed some
heart irregularities. It was only after they got back that
they discovered the extent of NASA’s concern for them and worry
that this situation may have caused permanent damage.
After all the post-flight activities were complete,
Jim left NASA and founded High Flight, an interdenominational
evangelical organization devoted to spreading his word, his
witnessing, his experience to other people. Jim described
being on the moon as a deeply spiritual experience. Less
than two years later, Jim experienced the first of several serious
heart attacks. He felt that his physical efforts on the moon,
combined with the way the human body eliminates excessive
potassium and other minerals in zero gravity, had damaged his
heart. He died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of
We used to see each other at astronaut reunions
or accidentally in airports from time to time, and when we
parted company, he would put his arm around me and say, “Well,
I hope to see you again soon, brother.” It was a surprise
the first time as that isn’t the way one astronaut talks to
another and I didn’t know what to say. After this happened
a few times, I wanted to reply because I felt very close to him
but I just couldn’t make myself say those words. Since I
left the space program and became an artist, I think differently
about myself and my life. I miss Jim a lot and I understand
how I miss him and respect him as the brother I never had.
The crew of Apollo 15 had a very successful return flight,
followed by the usual parades and visits with international
dignitaries: President Nixon, King Hussein of Jordan,
Golda Meir of Israel, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and to numerous
countries in Europe and the far east, including Taiwan, and
even Russia during the height of the Cold War. One unfortunate
episode got the crew in trouble, however. With the crew’s
knowledge and participation, Dave Scott had
taken 400 envelopes with first-day stamps to the moon and sold
them to a German dealer, who in turn sold them for a lot more money.
The rules about profiting from Apollo had been unclear, it seems, but NASA
was very concerned about the appearance of impropriety when
the matter became known, and reprimanded the crew members.
All accepted the reprimand honorably, and monies were returned, such that
none of them profited from the matter. NASA subsequently
imposed severe restrictions on what astronauts could sell from
their experiences. Other than this learning experience,
the reputations of the crew members were impeccable. Jim’s
wife Mary often traveled with him. They had five children:
Joy, Jill, James, Jan, and Joe, and called Colorado Springs
It’s a hard act
to follow, walking on the moon, yet Irwin’s career was, in a way,
just starting to take off. When speaking to a Baptist
church one evening, telling about the closeness to God he
felt on the moon, he realized he was in a unique position to
share the gospel. People were enthusiastically interested
to hear what an astronaut had to say, especially one who
was a Christian. Jim started a non-profit organization
named High Flight Foundation, based on the famous poem
of that name. It had two missions:
to share the gospel from his experiences as an astronaut, and
to stimulate archaeological research in support of the Bible.
In spite of heart problems, Jim took on some heavy-duty
adventures: climbing Mt. Ararat in Turkey to
investigate claims that remains of Noah’s Ark had been found,
and searching for possible sites of the Red Sea crossing by
Moses and the Israelites. Irwin’s reputation unlocked doors
with foreign governments. As a result, he was able to get
clearances to bring teams and equipment to sites that had been
frustratingly difficult to get near for other researchers.
Mt. Ararat (nearly 16,945 ft., in eastern Turkey), with its loose
rock, harsh winds, glaciers, deep gorges and landslides,
is one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb.
Irwin led teams up the slopes five times. On one of
these he was knocked unconscious by a falling rock. He lost
several teeth and a lot of blood. After spending the
night alone in the cold above 14,000 ft, he was barely discovered
in time by a team member. Of the dangers of this mountain,
Irwin wrote, We faced risk of physical danger, for Ararat is
a crumbling mountain. Every few minutes we could hear
rock slides and small avalanches. We slept in numbing
cold, fell on loose rock, dodged tumbling boulders, grew
exhausted from high-altitude climbing, had feet sore with
blisters, had painfully cracked lips from sunburn, received
various cuts and nicks, all in pursuit of a hidden and
uncertain treasure. He wrote a book after the third
More Than an Ark on Ararat: Spiritual lessons learned while
searching for Noah’s Ark (Broadman, 1985).
In it, he tells this story and other adventures.
(He signed my copy,
David He shows His love on the mountains
too! Jim Irwin, Apollo 15.) Unlike some sensationalists,
Irwin never claimed to have found the Ark, but was keenly
interested in following up on leads and eyewitness reports.
John McIntosh, another Ark researcher involved in 14 research expeditions
and 7 climbs on Ararat, met Irwin at base camp at the 11,000 foot
level in 1982. McIntosh was welcomed aboard Irwins
team and worked with him for five years. He says of Irwin,
I think he impressed
everyone he met as a very gracious, loving, dedicated and generous
Christian brother (personal communication, 2003).
Irwin was still planning expeditions to Ararat when his final,
fatal heart attack took him home to be with the Lord in 1991.
For the 20 years God gave him after his lunar expedition, Jim
Irwin never hesitated to share the gospel. He responded to Golda
Meir, Prime Minister of Israel, who asked if the moon mission had
changed his life or strengthened his faith, and said,
“Before the flight, I was not really a religious man.
I believed in God, but I really had nothing to share.
But when I came back from the moon, I felt so strongly that
I had something that I wanted to share with others, that I
established High Flight in order to tell all men everywhere that
God is alive, not only on earth, but also on the moon.”
(Irwin, p. 243). The details of that message, that he
shared countless times to attentive audiences, is his own adaptation
of the well-known Four Spiritual Laws from Campus Crusade for Christ:
Only after viewing earth from the moon, and totally dedicating his
life to Christ, did Col. James B. Irwin begin to sense how amazing
a flight plan could be, when its designer was not only the voice from
the Command Module, but the Manufacturer of all the flight hardware:
yet near and loving enough to call him “Brother Jim”:
(Irwin, pp. 231-232.)
- God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
The highest flight plan man can have on earth is to understand
this love and this personal plan. [Irwin quotes John 3:16]
- Man is sinful and separated from God, thus he cannot know
and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
Man’s flight plan is marred because he is sinful and separated
from God. This is much like being separated from the Command
Module in a space walk. Man will die unless he is reconnected.
[He quotes Romans 3:23 and 6:23]
- Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin.
Through Him you can know and experience God’s plan for your life.
The connecting link, like the umbilical cord on a space walk, between
God and man is Jesus Christ. [Quotes John 14:6 and I John 5:11-12]
- We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord:
Then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
The connecting link must be made personally. It isn’t something
someone else can do for us. It is intensely personal and private.
[Quotes Revelation 3:20]. Asking Him in is personally accepting Him.
For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified
are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them
brethren, saying: “I will declare Your name to My brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You.”
*Irwin describes this rock as being dated later at 4.15 billion
years old (To Rule the Night, p. 77). John McIntosh believes,
however, that Irwin was a young-earth creationist, because
He certainly believed that Noah’s flood was a
global event and occurred around 5,000 years ago.
Perhaps Irwin came to this conviction later.
Learn More About|
Visit the High
Flight Society at Seattle Pacific, an campus organization inspired
by Irwins High Flight Foundation.
Learn about the crew
of Apollo 15 at the NASA Headquarters website.
Here is a short biography on the
National Cemetery website.
See Irwins biography on NASAs
Space Center website, and another short sketch on the
hall of fame,
and another on The
For a list of Ararat expeditions Irwin participated in
or supported, see
Ark Search. At the
John Morris has a report on the 1987 expedition Irwins
High Flight Foundation supported.
See a painting of Irwin by
Apollo 12 astronaut. Here
is another of Irwin looking up at the earth. View more of his paintings on