Category Archives: History of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System

Taller? Healthier? Thank an Extension Educator

Tuskegee Institute Movable SchoolI’ve spoken more than once in this forum about Uva Hester, a pioneering Extension public health educator of the early 20th century.

Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Hester, a Tuskegee Institute health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.

Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.

It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.

Hester, along with a team of poorly funded but determined Tuskegee Institute educators, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, vowed to do something about it.  Working with the state’s health department, Tuskegee educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, if not potentially deadly, conditions.

I was reminded of Hester today after reading a New York Times article attesting to the immense advances in human health and well-being that have occurred within the last few centuries.

The Times reports that for almost three decades, a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel has been diligently investigating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides in food production and human health and nutrition.  The results of this study have been compiled into a book titled “The Changing Human Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in May, 2011.

The researchers maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia” — as they stress, “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”

One of the nation’s leading demographers and sociologists, the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Preston, puts the issue into sharp perspective:  Without the advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.

The last 100 years of progress are due in no small measure to Uva Hester and the thousands of Extension public health educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved their lives but, in an immense number of cases, actually saved them.

The Tuskegee Institute Extension efforts are only one of many examples of Extension-sponsored efforts aimed at improving basic nutritional and health skills, especially among limited resource families.  For example, in the early 1960s, five rural Alabama counties served as pilot sites for what later became known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was developed to provide directed education to limited resource families to improve their eating habits and homemaking skills.  The program was eventually expanded to all 50 states.

The role that pioneering Extension nutritional and health educators have played in these advances, while impressive, should not detract from the equally critical contributions of Extension agricultural educators in helping the nation’s farmers secure one of the greatest technological achievements in human history: a comparatively cheap, diverse and abundant food supply.

As Fogel stresses, technological advances rescued farmers from the endless cycle of subsistence farming.  For example, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 hours during a five-and-a-half day week.  Farmers needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to grow more food without being stronger.

The improved yields secured by advanced scientific farming methods broke this cycle and changed the face of farming forever.

The strong Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.

Despite these immense strides, Extension educators still face a bevy of challenges.

Fogel concedes that when he first began his research, he never imagined that technological advances would lead to chronic problems of overnutrition, which have contributed to obesity and related chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer.

Extension nutrition and health educators increasingly are being called upon to demonstrate practical ways to avoid these conditions.

Meanwhile, Extension agricultural educators are gearing up to help farmers build a new farming model by mid-20th century that not only incorporates both scientific farming advances and sustainable practices but  that is also equipped to feed some 9 billion people across the planet using less land, less water and less energy.

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Wikifying Cooperative Extension Work

I don’t think there is anything associated with the Internet that impresses me more than Wikipedia — its sheer breadth and convenience and, most of all, the way it’s revolutionized how we collaborate as wired human beings.

I think it will be remembered centuries from now as one of the greatest achievements since the Gutenberg Press —  pardon the hyperbolic rhetoric, but I really mean that.

A couple of years ago the thought occurred to me: Why not wikify Cooperative Extension?

Yes, I know, this sounds more like a PR venture than an actual attempt to educate people through shared knowledge, which, of course, is the stated aim of Jimmy Wales and the Wikipedia concept.

But I had a story to tell.  Alabama may figure as the 49th state on many lists, but in terms of its Extension legacy, it ranks near the top — replete with names such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Thomas M. Campbell, Luther Duncan and terms such as Jesup Wagons.

As I said, I had a story  to tell and to share — a very compelling one.

So whenever I could muster the time, I wrote — and wrote and wrote and wrote, as it turned out.

Actually, I first cut my Wikipedian teeth on a series of articles on my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Alabama, which has now grown to a cluster of articles.  (I’m proud to say that for a relatively small regional school, dear ol’ UNA’s  Wikipedia presence is now not too shabby one.)

Anyway, back to my Extension effort.  I started with a general article about the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, first outlining its mission and programs.  Over time, I’ve managed to grow it into a fully expanded article — one of the largest among Alabama articles — that also covers Alabama Extension’s impressive history beginning with Seaman Knapp’s initial efforts.

Also included are articles about three of our most noteworthy directors: Luther Duncan, P.O. Davis and E.T. York, though an article about York, who also served as a University of Florida interim president, already existed in “stubb” form.

The articles I’ve most enjoyed are the ones dealing with our history.  These include a lengthy piece on the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture, which was a series of WPA-funded murals commissioned by the then-Alabama Extension Service to highlight the progress of Alabama agriculture. 

In time I was able to include enough articles to build develop a Alabama Extension navigation bar, which, placed at the end of each article, allows easy navigation to related articles.

Granted, researching and writing these articles was time-consuming, but they have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  All of them have garnered respectable followings: The main article on Alabama Extension attracts roughly 500 to 600 hits a month.  The Historical Panorama piece and the accompanying article about the artist, John Augustus Walker, cumulatively garner about 300 to 400 hits each month. 

A couple of the articles on our Extension directors appear to generate roughly 250 hits a months.

These articles have paid off in so many ways, not only by educating thousands more people about Alabama Extension history but also by instilling our employees with a greater sense of organizational pride and esprit de corps.

One enterprising Extension county coordinator in northwest Alabama, Katernia Cole, used the material to organize a Luther Duncan Celebration for Alabama’s 4-H centennial.  As it turns out, Duncan, a national 4-H pioneer and a Alabama Extension director and Auburn University president, was a native of the town in which she works.

They’ve paid off in other ways too. The article on the Historical Panorama was part of the inspiration behind one Birmingham historian’s effort to sponsor a return of the murals to Birmingham for the first time in more than 70 years.

I am proud to be a Wikipedian, and, most of all, I’m proud to have found a way to use this remarkable medium to acquaint thousands of people around the world with the remarkable human achievement that is Cooperative Extension work.