by Ana Wang, Graduate Student at The Scripps Research Institute. This post is the first installment of our "Meet a Scientist" Series
Meet George Washington Carver – scientist, agriculturist, scholar, inventor, but, contrary to popular belief, not the inventor of peanut butter. Although none of his hundreds of peanut products achieved commercial success, Carver’s accomplishments have landed him an irreplaceable part in history for revolutionizing agriculture in the United States and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to become a highly esteemed, African-American faculty member of the Tuskegee Institute in a time of extreme racial tensions.
George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri to Mary and Giles, a slave couple owned by Moses and Susan Carver. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but it is estimated to be in the mid-1860s. Sadly, at approximately one-week old, George, his mother, and sister were kidnapped by farm raiders to be sold in Kentucky. George was located and returned to Moses Carver’s farm, but his mother and sister were not found.
Moses and Susan Carver decided to keep and raise George and his brother. Because no schools accepted black students, Susan taught them to read and write at home. George valued learning from a young age, and enrolled in a school for black children about ten miles from the Carver Farm. When he enrolled, instead of continuing to be referred to as “Carver’s George,” he adopted the name “George Carver.” George pursued his education and graduated from high school in Kansas, but was denied admission to Highland College because of his race.
George enrolled in the botany program at the Iowa State Agricultural College as the first black student at the school. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and, in 1896, a master’s degree, establishing himself as an exceptional botanist in the process. In 1896, Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, took notice of George Carver’s outstanding accomplishments and hired him as the head of the institute’s agricultural department. Carver’s research and work focused heavily on creating alternative uses of common crops, especially the peanut and sweet potato. He developed products from these plants for a myriad of purposes (over 300 products from peanuts and over 100 products from sweet potatoes!), such as paints, plastics, flours, shaving cream, glue, and even a form of gasoline. He is mistakenly commonly credited with the invention of peanut butter, but in reality, peanut butter made from ground peanuts date as far back as the 15th century by the Aztecs and Incas – centuries before Carver was even born.
Carver remained adamantly passionate about education. Due to his very humble beginnings, he spent his entire life helping poor farmers, especially African-Americans, improve their crops and get out of poverty, always refusing compensation for his advice. Carver promoted various methods of crop rotation, which is a large part of why peanuts became a large source of his innovations. He promoted the growing of crops that fixed nitrogen, promoting sustainability of nutritious soil and, therefore, healthy crops. Carver lived frugally and used his fame to promote scientific causes. He also started a mobile classroom known as the “Jesup wagon” that visited various farms to educate the farmers about agricultural techniques. He wrote for a newspaper column and traveled around the country, speaking about the importance of agricultural research and innovation. For ten years in 1923-1933, he spoke in support of racial harmony when he visited white colleges in the South for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and the YMCA. Although he never spoke out directly against racist social and economic injustices of the time, his scientific success and open-minded demeanor still earned him great respect and admiration from both African-American and Caucasian people.
George Carver became so well-known for his work that president Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked to him for advice on agricultural matters. In 1916, Carver became a member of the British Royal Society of Arts, which is a very rare honor given to Americans.
George Washington Carver passed away in 1943 at the age of 78. He is buried next to his friend and colleague Booker T. Washington. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for a monument to be constructed in Carver’s honor, located west of his hometown of Diamond, Missouri. This is the first national monument dedicated to an African-American. Carver’s epitaph summarizes his beliefs and the humble philosophy by which he lived his life: “He could have added fortune to the fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.” To this day, he remains an icon of African-American achievement, scientific achievement, and the transformative power of education.
“George Washington Carver Biography.com.” Biography.com Editors. The Biography.com website. http://www.biography.com/people/george-washington-carver-9240299. September 28, 2016. A&E Television Networks. April 26, 2017.
“Who Invented Peanut Butter?” National Peanut Board. http://nationalpeanutboard.org/peanut-info/who-invented-peanut-butter.htm. April 26, 2017.
“Major Contributions – George Washington Carver.” https://sites.google.com/site/georgewashingtoncarverbiotech/. George Washington Carver Biotech. April 25, 2017.
“George Washington Carver.” Linda O. McMurry. The Reader’s Companion to American History. 1991. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/george-washington-carver. April 25, 2017.
All images used were found on Wikimedia Commons and are Public Domain