WWII Liason Pilot Welton I. Taylor

Welton TaylorA descendant of President Zachary Taylor, world-renowned scientist and educator Welton I. Taylor was born in Alabama in 1919. Shortly afterward, his family moved to Chicago, where his performance at DuSable High School inspired local African Americans to sponsor his undergraduate education in bacteriology at the University of Illinois. Taylor served in the first all-African American division to enter into combat in World War II.

An avid genealogist, Taylor has detailed his family history and ancestors on both sides of his family, explaining his multiethnic heritage. In discussing his genealogical research that allowed him to discover his African American roots, he talks about one of his cousins, the famed blues songwriter W. C. Handy. He also describes his family’s migration from Alabama to Chicago, which was prompted by threats from the Ku Klux Klan. In multiple interviews with “The History Makers”, Dr. Taylor describes the challenges his parents faced after they moved from Alabama to Chicago, including facing the Great Depression. In these interviews he vividly recounts the Chicago race riot of 1919, which occurred a few months before his birth. Taylor explains how two of his relatives were nearly beaten to death. Taylor then shares examples of how his father’s advice helped him as a child.

Welton studied the sciences of microbiology and bacteriology at the University of Illinois. He also participated in ROTC while at Uof I which led to his being commissioned as a second lieutenant following graduation. Stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he was the only black officer there he faced numerous confrontations with racism and discrimination, including being forced to ride in segregated railcars and confrontations with white officers who did want to command black troops. He was introduced to aviation & soloed while at Fort Sill and it was there that he also contracted hepatitis from a contaminated needle.

He was later transfered to Fort Custer in Michigan where he completed his pilot’s instruction and began intelligence training. He was subsequently transfered to Fort Huachuca, Arizona where he served as a flight instructor while preparing for overseas combat. Overseas, Dr. Taylor flew reconnaissance missions at Guadalcanal and recounts a visit from famed pilot Charles Lindbergh. During his History Makers interviews, he recalls his adventures flying in Papua New Guinea during World War II, explaining his non-combat missions and his favorite planes to fly. He then recounts his return home to the states, got married and enrolled again at the University of Illinois this time in graduate school under the G.I. bill. The G.I. Bill enabled him to return to his alma mater for both an M.A. and Ph.D. in bacteriology.

Taylor was appointed bacteriology instructor at the University of Illinois in 1948. He promptly discovered that common antibiotics could treat gas gangrene and tetanus, dangerous conditions that affected war victims. In 1954, the Chicago meatpacking firm Swift & Company recruited Taylor to tackle an outbreak of salmonella poisoning in baby food. He standardized his successful approach to this problem and exported it to labs worldwide. In subsequent years Taylor helped Chicago-area hospitals, healthcare organizations and government agencies address an array of health problems. On a sojourn abroad from 1961 to 1962, he collaborated with prestigious British and French scientists. Upon returning to the University of Illinois, Taylor developed methods of bacteria detection that the Food and Drug Administration relies on today. In 1985, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta named a bacterium, Enterobacter taylorae, in honor of Taylor and a British colleague.

Taylor has received numerous awards and grants and his prodigious list of publications continues to influence scientists. In 1960, he founded the Chicago chapter of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity, and he remains active in community organizations. Taylor welcomes opportunities to lecture on recent health issues that concern him, increases in STDs and HIV. He and his wife, Jayne, whom he married in 1945, have two daughters, Karyn and Shelley.

Biographical Interview conducted by The HistoryMakers®

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