Updated: December 19, 2012 1:44PM
In the world of microbiology, Welton I. Taylor was a rock star.
The Centers for Disease Control even named a bacterium after him and a colleague: Enterobacter taylorae.
Mr. Taylor, an alum of DuSable High School and the University of Illinois, was an expert on foodborne illness. He spent decades consulting at many Chicago hospitals, improving patient care and testing, and training lab techs. He was a consulting microbiologist at the Institut Pasteur in Lille, France, and the Central Public Health Laboratory in London, where he advised the Europeans on how to eradicate salmonella in their imported foods.
In the 1950s, when the food giant Swift had an outbreak of salmonella in baby food, Mr. Taylor was able to identify the source of the illness, according to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).
The ASM website said Mr. Taylor might have been “the oldest living African-American microbiologist.” He joined the group in 1947, after serving in World War II as a liaison pilot — flyers who help advise the artillery on how to hit targets.
Mr. Taylor, 92, died of cancer Nov. 1 in Chicago.
He was born in Birmingham, Ala. The family moved up north after a threat from the Ku Klux Klan. His mother, Cora Lee Brewer, witnessed a KKK parade through town when one of the Klan horses reared up, dislodging its rider — and the man’s white hood. Recognizing the face of a local banker, she declared, “I know who you are, and I wish you’d broken your neck,” according to the Taylor family.
It wasn’t long before three Klan members visited her. If she wanted to avoid becoming a widow, they told her, she’d better leave town.
The Taylors moved to Chicago, where they had relatives.
Mr. Taylor was valedictorian of his class at DuSable, his daughter said. His high school counselor watched in frustration as colleges came to DuSable to court athletes but ignored star scholars like him. The counselor appealed to Earl B. Dickerson, president of the black-owned Supreme Liberty Life Insurance Co. He raised money with the help of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity to enable Mr. Taylor to attend college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
There he joined the ROTC. The ASM notes that author-historian Dempsey Travis called Mr. Taylor “the University of Illinois’ first identifiable Negro in the Reserve Officers Training Corps.”
He was sent to Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., where he paid for private flying lessons. He received additional training at an Army Air Force facility in Pittsburg, Kan.
At one point during training, he was housed with three white servicemen. Mr. Taylor was light-skinned, so they didn’t realize he was African American. When he heard them make racial slurs, he pulled rank — literally. “Daddy told them there would be no more derogatory comments, and that was an order,” his daughter said.
He served in the South Pacific, where he flew liaison and reconnaissance missions and did mail drops, she said. He survived a plane crash on the island of Morotai, hiking through mosquito-infested, neck-deep swamps to get to a beach, where American forces rescued him, she said.
Back home, he’d pursued a beauty named Jayne Kemp. At the PX, he bought her an engagement ring and mailed it to Chicago. She opened it while she was entertaining another gentleman caller — a promising young suitor from Howard University.
The other man looked at the bauble, and said: “I’ll get you a much better ring.”
She said no — she’d wait for Welton Taylor.
They wed in 1945. They were married nearly 60 years, until her death in 2005.
Mr. Taylor received his master’s degree and doctorate from the University Of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He taught at UIC and Northwestern University Medical School. He also did consulting for companies including Armour and McDonnell Douglas. He earned four patents, and published more than 40 scientific articles, his daughter said.
He was an inspiration to many young African-American scientists. “He was a pathfinder, a way-maker, a pioneer,” according to Crystal N. Johnson, an assistant professor at Louisiana State University and an associate editor of an ASM publication, where she wrote a tribute to Dr. Taylor. She recalled his blunt, common-sense assessments of problems: “He spoke of working in Europe and the U.S. as a consultant and how his criticisms of how the chickens were housed were not well received. ‘Well of course you have a salmonella problem — your chickens are walking around in their own feces,’ he would say.”
Mr. Taylor was a member of the Chicago “DODO” chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. He often spoke to area schools and groups about his experiences as a black World War II pilot.
“Women just loved him. When he would go out and speak,” Karyn Taylor said, “He would come home with lipstick all over his cheeks from kisses from women in the audience.”
He also self-published a book about his wartime experiences, “Two Steps from Glory,” and sold it at the Experimental Aircraft Association airshow in Oshkosh, Wis.
He is also survived by another daughter, Shelley.
Services are at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, 4945 S. Dorchester.