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George Washington Carver: Botanist, Inventor, and Savior of the South's Agriculture

This profile on George Washington Carver is the fourth post in a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Today’s post also celebrates tomorrow's National Inventor’s Day by focusing on Carver, who invented over 300 new products among accomplishing amazing agricultural feats. Check back each weekday to read a new profile, the next of which focuses on Mark Dean, co-creator of the IBM personal computer, in honor of the second celebration held tomorrow, Safer Internet Day.

George Washington Carver may be most well-known for his discovery of the peanuts, but he was much more than the just the “peanut man” as some affectionately called him. Carver was an early proponent of crop-rotation, a botanist, a department leader at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), and the inventor of hundreds of everyday products.

Carver was born into slavery on a farm owned by Moses and Susan Carver in 1864 only a few weeks before Confederate raiders pilfered the farm, stealing young slaves to sell in Kentucky, including the newborn Carver1. Moses Carver was only able to find and recover young Carver, who was brought back to the farm to live with his biological brother James who was not taken during the raid1. In 1865, when slavery was abolished, Moses and Susan decided to raise and educate Carver and James as their own which is when the boys officially took the former slave owners last name as their own2.

Carver became interested in plant sciences under the tutelage of Susan before she insisted that Carver attend a formal school to properly fuel his growing curiosity. Through proper schooling, Carver continued to excel until he graduated high school in 1880 with the intention of continuing his education in college. Carver first applied to Highland Presbyterian College in Kansas which accepted and granted him a full scholarship1. However, after stepping foot on campus, the college rescinded their offer because they thought Carver was white. Not allowing himself to be brought down by this racism, Carver worked odd jobs until 1888 when he applied and was accepted into Simpson College in Iowa as the first black student.

While attending Simpson College, Carver began to paint floral scenes. His attention to detail prompted a professor to recommend that Carver apply to Iowa State Agricultural School (now Iowa State University) to study Botany2. This critical decision in Carver’s life propelled him into the work we now thank Carver for.

Iowa State allowed Carver to blossom. Here, he became the first African American student to earn a Bachelor of Science in 1894 and was persuaded by his professors to become a faculty member and pursue his master’s degree, which he completed in 1896. While working as director of the Iowa State Experimental Station, Carver discovered two new fungal species and began researching what we now call crop rotation2.

These agricultural developments launched Carver’s name into the world as an expert. One person was particularly intrigued by Carver’s research - Booker T. Washington. Washington, the founder of the historically black Tuskegee Institute, sent Carver a letter offering him the opportunity to lead the Institute's agricultural department in 18961.

Washington wrote:

“I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last from the position 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 work, the task of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head.2

Despite a salary cut, Carver immediately accepted the position, where he worked to help Southern farmers produce better crops from soil that lacked nutrients after years of cotton-only farms. Carver introduced peanuts to these farmers as the first step in the now common practice of crop rotation. Peanuts, which are easy and quick to grow, add nitrogen back into the soil which was severely lacking due to cotton plants. Carver took his ideas to former slaves who became sharecroppers after emancipation by creating a mobile laboratory pulled by horses, which he called the Jessup Wagon.

Carver’s crop rotation was a huge success, but the sudden abundance of peanuts became an issue. This prompted the ever solution-oriented Carver to create 300 new inventions using peanuts which he marketed himself, including flour, paste, insulation, paper, wall board, wood stains, soap, shaving cream, skin lotion and medicines such as antiseptics2. Carver did not invent peanut butter though – that credit goes to the ancient Incan civilization2.

The plethora of new inventions introduced by Carver attracted the focus of Henry Ford. Ford requested that Carver invent a peanut-based replacement for rubber, which he did in addition to developing dye created from Alabama soils to aid in the ongoing World War I effort.

Ever evolving, Carver added a "W" to his name to honor Booker T. Washington, continued to experiment with the versatility of plants, served as a nutritional expert to Mahatma Gandhi advocated for the protection of American crops over foreign grown crops, was named Speaker for the United States Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and head of the Division of Plant Mycology and Disease Survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2.

Upon his death in 1943, Carver was responsible for the $200-million-per-year peanut crop in the United States and saving the agricultural industry of the South. In one final act of future sight and generosity, Carver donated $60,000 of the profits earned from years of hard work and innovation to found the George Washington Carver Institute for Agriculture at Tuskegee.

Carver only patented three of his inventions. In his words, “It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.2

 

References:

  1. Biography. (2020, January 16). George Washington Carver Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/scientist/george-washington-carver.
     
  2. LiveScience. (2013, December 7). George Washington Carver: Biography, Inventions & Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/41780-george-washington-carver.html.