Opinion: Gilbert Daniels, the gardener who changed our world

Gilbert Daniels

By: Punya Mishra, associate dean of Scholarship and Innovation and professor 

Originally published on punyamishra.com

Gilbert S. Daniels, aged 92, passed away peacefully at the Kimes Nursing and Convalescent Center, in Athens Ohio on April 14, 2020 (almost exactly 3 years ago). His obituary, published in the Indianapolis Star described his lifelong love of horticulture and botany, that began when he was just 7. At 17, he won the prestigious Westinghouse Scholarship with his paper on the future uses of plants in pharmacology. He got a degree from Harvard, spent a few years in the Air Force, moved to private industry but finally went back to his first love, botany, receiving his doctorate from UCLA. He ended his professional career as director of the Hunt Botanical Library at Carnegie Mellon but continued his connection to horticulture after retirement, maintaining a garden in Indianapolis, photographs of which were deemed worthy of being archived by the Smithsonian. 

It was clearly a life well lived—a talented individual with a full and rich life, following his passion and interests. But what the obituary ignored was Daniel’s important contribution to the world that we all inhabit. And this happened in the few years he worked in the Air Force at the Wright Patterson Base in Dayton, Ohio. The work that he did there changed not just the Air Force, but in some ways it has touched all of our lives. 

A bit of context may be in order. In the late 1940’s, the US Air Force was facing a major problem. Many of its planes were crashing for reasons labeled as “pilot error,” with no obvious malfunctioning in the mechanics/electronics of the planes. The Air Force ultimately realized that the design of the cockpit was to blame, possibly because it was based on averages of measurements taken from male pilots back in the late 1920’s. They wondered if people had grown bigger and that the design of the aircraft needed to be updated to match the measurements of a “new” average.  

Leading this work was 23-year-old Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels, fresh from his degree at Harvard. As part of this project, he measured approximately a hundred different physical dimensions of over 4,000 airmen. As he studied the data, however, Daniels began to wonder about just how many pilots actually fit the so-called “average.” To test this, he selected 10 key averages, such as height, weight, arm length, hip circumference and so on to see how many airmen would fall into the average in these categories. What he found was surprising—not a single pilot, of the 4,063 measured, fit in the average range on all ten dimensions (let alone the 100 different dimensions he had measured). He realized that it was virtually impossible to find an ‘average man’ in the Air Force population. 

Essentially, Daniels’ suggested that if you design for the average, you design for no one. This is because we all have “jagged profiles,” i.e., physical measurements that never smoothly and perfectly line up with every single average measure. If you have an average torso, your hands maybe longer or shorter than average; the same for weight or height or any of the 100 variables he measured. 

Moreover, if this was true of a somewhat homogeneous group (white men who were air force pilots in this case) the results would be even messy if expanded to include all people. Simply including women pilots, for instance, would have complicated matters up even more.

Daniels’ insight sparked transformative changes in the design of aircraft cockpits, shifting the focus from meeting the needs of a mythical average pilot, to creating flexible and adaptive designs to fit the needs of individuals’ “jagged profiles.” This is what led to adjustable seats, flight suits and helmet straps, as opposed to a one-size-fits-the-average approach. And in time this insight spread through all aspects of design, leading to things we take for granted today: adjustable car seats, bike helmets, and much more. In some critical ways, Daniels’ insight transformed the designed world that we all live in to become more adaptive and adaptable for the rich variation of humanity.

As must be clear, this has significant implications for us as educators, where the attributes we are interested in go beyond the physical, and the easily measurable, to more intangible constructs such as talent, interest, grit, cultural and social capital and more. This is exactly how I came across Daniels' seminal insight, while conducting research on designing educational software and educational systems that meet the needs of ALL learners. For too long the design of curriculum and educational policy has focused on this mythical idea—the average learner. This is something we are fighting against even today. As Harvard Professor Mike Rose has written, speaking of Daniels' work: “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms.” 

It is not just his obituary in the Indianapolis Star that ignores his work in the air force. His obituary, in the Hunt Institute of Botanical Documentation spring 2021 bulletin, does the same, just mentioning in passing his work as a physical anthropologist for the air force, encapsulating in just one sentence his seminal contribution to our world:

He worked as a physical anthropologist for the Air Force and then joined the private sector to work in the early computer industry.

On this date, in April, three years from Daniels' passing, it may be appropriate to recognize his fundamental contribution to the world we live in today. Daniels may have had an illustrious career as a horticulturist, but it is his insight on the myth of the average may have been his greatest contribution. We should remember him every time we adjust our car-seats, tighten the strap on our bike-helmets, or turn on close captioning on our TV’s (despite having pretty good hearing). What he discovered and wrote about in his reports drives conversations and informs education and design even today.