72. George Washington Carver - Black Leonardo and Scientist Extraordinaire

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

Who was George Washington Carver ?


George Washington Carver (1860s – January 5, 1943) was an American agricultural scientist and inventor. He promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. He was the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century.

While a professor at Tuskegee Institute, Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. He wanted poor farmers to grow other crops, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes, as a source of their own food and to improve their quality of life.


The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes using peanuts.


Although he spent years developing and promoting numerous products made from peanuts, none became commercially successful.


Apart from his work to improve the lives of farmers, Carver was also a leader in promoting environmentalism. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP. In an era of high racial polarization, his fame reached beyond the black community. He was widely recognized and praised in the white community for his many achievements and talents.


In 1941, Time magazine dubbed Carver a "Black Leonardo".


I. Early years


Carver was born into slavery, in Diamond Grove (now Diamond), Newton County, Missouri, near Crystal Place, sometime in the early or mid 1860s. The date of his birth is uncertain and was not known to Carver; but it was before slavery was abolished in Missouri, which occurred in January 1865, during the American Civil War. His master, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant, who had purchased George's parents, Mary and Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for $700.


When George was a week old, he, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas. George's brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. The kidnappers sold the slaves in Kentucky. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but he found only the infant George. Moses negotiated with the raiders to gain the boy's return, and rewarded Bentley.


After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife, Susan, raised George and his older brother, James, as their own children. They encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits, and "Aunt Susan" taught him the basics of reading and writing.



Black people were not allowed at the public school in Diamond Grove. George decided to go to a school for black children 10 miles (16 km) south, in Neosho. When he reached the town, he found the school closed for the night. He slept in a nearby barn. By his own account, the next morning he met a kind woman, Mariah Watkins, from whom he wished to rent a room. When he identified himself as "Carver's George", as he had done his whole life, she replied that from now on his name was "George Carver". George liked Mariah Watkins, and her words "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people" made a great impression on him.



At age 13, because he wanted to attend the academy there, he moved to the home of another foster family, in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing the killing of a black man by a group of whites, Carver left the city. He attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.


Carver applied to several colleges before being accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, however, they refused to let him attend because of his race. In August 1886, Carver traveled by wagon with J. F. Beeler from Highland to Eden Township in Ness County, Kansas.He homesteaded a claim near Beeler, where he maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. He manually plowed 17 acres (69,000 m2) of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery.


He also earned money by odd jobs in town and worked as a ranch hand.



II. College education


In early 1888, Carver obtained a $300 loan at the Bank of Ness City for education. By June he left the area.In 1890, Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver's talent for painting flowers and plants; she encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in Ames.

Pic : George Washington Carver with Henry Ford


When he began there in 1891, he was the first black student at Iowa State. Carver's Bachelor's thesis for a degree in Agriculture was "Plants as Modified by Man", dated 1894. Iowa State University professors Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel convinced Carver to continue there for his master's degree.Carver did research at the Iowa Experiment Station under Pammel during the next two years. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist. Carver received his master of science degree in 1896.


Carver taught as the first black faculty member at Iowa State University.


Despite occasionally being addressed as "doctor," Carver never received an official doctorate, and in a personal communication with Louis H. Pammel, he noted that it was a "misnomer", given to him by others due to his abilities and their assumptions about his education. With that said, both Simpson College and Selma University awarded him honorary doctorates of science in his lifetime. Iowa State later awarded him a doctorate of humane letters posthumously in 1994.



III. Tuskegee Institute


In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the first principal and president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), invited Carver to head its Agriculture Department. Carver taught there for 47 years, developing the department into a strong research center and working with two additional college presidents during his tenure. He taught methods of crop rotation, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency.


Carver designed a mobile classroom to take education out to farmers. He called it a "Jesup wagon" after the New York financier and philanthropist Morris Ketchum Jesup, who provided funding to support the program.


To recruit Carver to Tuskegee, Washington gave him an above average salary and two rooms for his personal use, although both concessions were resented by some other faculty. Because he had earned a master's in a scientific field from a "white" institution, some faculty perceived him as arrogant. Unmarried faculty members normally had to share rooms, with two to a room, in the spartan early days of the institute.



IV. Achievemnets and Contributions


1. Peanut products


Carver heard the complaints and retired to his laboratory for a solid week, during which he developed several new products that could be produced from peanuts. When he introduced these products to the public in a series of simple brochures, the market for peanuts skyrocketed. Today, Carver is credited with saving the agricultural economy of the rural South.


From his work at Tuskegee, Carver developed approximately 300 products made from peanuts; these included: flour, paste, insulation, paper, wall board, wood stains, soap, shaving cream and skin lotion. He experimented with medicines made from peanuts, which included antiseptics, laxatives and a treatment for goiter.

2.What about peanut butter?


Contrary to popular belief, while Carver developed a version of peanut butter, he did not invent it. The Incas developed a paste made out of ground peanuts as far back as 950 B.C. In the United States, according to the National Peanut Board, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, of cereal fame, invented a version of peanut butter in 1895.


A St. Louis physician may have developed peanut butter as a protein substitute for people who had poor teeth and couldn't chew meat. Peanut butter was introduced at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.


3. Aiding the war effort


During World War I, Carver was asked to assist Henry Ford in producing a peanut-based replacement for rubber. Also during the war, when dyes from Europe became difficult to obtain, he helped the American textile industry by developing more than 30 colors of dye from Alabama soils.


After the War, George added a "W" to his name to honor Booker T. Washington. Carver continued to experiment with peanut products and became interested in sweet potatoes, another nitrogen-fixing crop. Products he invented using sweet potatoes include: wood fillers, more than 73 dyes, rope, breakfast cereal, synthetic silk, shoe polish and molasses. He wrote several brochures on the nutritional value of sweet potatoes and the protein found in peanuts, including recipes he invented for use of his favorite plants.


He even went to India to confer with Mahatma Gandhi on nutrition in developing nations.


In 1920, Carver delivered a speech to the new Peanut Growers Association of America. This organization was advocating that Congress pass a tariff law to protect the new American industry from imported crops. As a result of this speech, he testified before Congress in 1921 and the tariff was passed in 1922.  In 1923, Carver was named as Speaker for the United States Commission on Interracial Cooperation, a post he held until 1933. In 1935, he was named head of the Division of Plant Mycology and Disease Survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


By 1938, largely due to Carver’s influence, peanuts had grown to be a $200-million-per-year crop in the United States and were the chief agricultural product grown in the state of Alabama.


4. Carver's Legacy


Carver died on Jan. 5, 1943. At his death, he left his life savings, more than $60,000, to found the George Washington Carver Institute for Agriculture at Tuskegee. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated funds to erect a monument at Diamond, Missouri, in his honor.


Commemorative postage stamps were issued in 1948 and again in 1998. A George Washington Carver half-dollar coin was minted between 1951 and 1954. There are two U.S. military vessels named in his honor.


There are also numerous scholarships and schools named for him. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Simpson College. Since his exact birth date is unknown, Congress has designated January 5 as George Washington Carver Recognition Day.


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.” 


The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver at Tuskegee University


Dr. George Washington Carver - 1943

Research Scientist Extraordinaire, Inventor, Man of Faith, Educator and Humanitarian


As a botany and agriculture teacher to the children of ex-slaves, Dr. George Washington Carver wanted to improve the lot of “the man farthest down,” the poor, one-horse farmer at the mercy of the market and chained to land exhausted by cotton.


Unlike other agricultural researchers of his time, Dr. Carver saw the need to devise practical farming methods for this kind of farmer. He wanted to coax them away from cotton to such soil-enhancing, protein-rich crops as soybeans and peanuts a