George Washington Carver

Jun 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Science & Invention
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georgewashingtoncarver1864? – 1943  George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and educator of international reputation, whose work had a critical impact on the agrarian economy of the post-Civil War Southern U.S.  He revolutionized the prevailing system of reliance on cotton and tobacco, while creating hundreds of new products based on alternative crops that found ready markets worldwide for Southern growers.  He is universally acknowledged as a great researcher and humanitarian, and an inspirational model of early African American scientific achievement.

Strong Appetite for Education

Carver was born a slave just prior to emancipation (the exact date of his birth is unknown) on the Moses Carver plantation in Diamond Grove, Missouri. His father died shortly before his birth, and he and his mother were captured by slave raiders. Moses Carver succeeded in ransoming back the infant child, and with his wife raised the newly freed George Washington Carver and his brother as their own children. Early illness and a frail constitution kept Carver near to home, where his chores in the garden and free time in the surrounding woods nurtured an interest in plants. He became known locally as the “Plant Doctor” for his skill in nursing ailing flora.

A strong appetite for education led him first to another town to attend a one-room schoolhouse open to Blacks; then to a rejection, based on his race, by Highland University; and then in 1890 to attend Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa to study music and art as that school’s first Black student. He showed great talent in both areas, but was singled out by a teacher for his evident scientific and horticultural ability. At her urging, Carver was the first African American to enter the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now Iowa State University) in 1891. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1894 while working as the school’s janitor, and was encouraged to remain to pursue a master’s degree. He also became the school’s first Black faculty member at this time. Upon earning his graduate degree in 1896, Carver was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty of the prestigious African American academy he had founded, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Carver produced the work that would make him famous at Tuskegee, both as a researcher and educator. His seminal discovery was that a reliance on cotton and tobacco was depleting the Southern soil of vital nutrients, and degrading its productive capacity. Together with the collapse of slave labor, the South was confronting a grave economic problem. Carver determined that peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans could actually restore these nutrients if alternated with the traditional crops. He concurrently invented 325 products that could be produced from those very same crops, thus creating an economic engine that revitalized the local economy and its soil at the same time. Peanuts alone became a $200 million industry by 1938 and one of Alabama’s primary cash crops. Some of the more notable products he developed included a milk substitute, face powder, printer’s ink, soap, flour, shoe polish, candy, synthetic marble, fuel briquettes, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, talcum powder, and paving material.

In his role as educator, Carver also developed the “extension” concept for the South with “movable schools” designed to bring practical information and skills to rural farmers. He focused constant energy on helping to improve the status of fellow African Americans, and distributed pamphlets and bulletins and toured with conferences, exhibits, demonstrations, and lectures in an effort to reach Black farmers. He was active with the Commission on Inter-Racial Cooperation, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.

Helping the World

His selflessness extended to his scientific achievements: Carver only patented three of his many hundreds of discoveries, citing their greater importance as tools for general advancement rather than personal enrichment. In his own modest words, “God gave them to me, how can I sell them to someone else?” Having never married, he donated or willed his entire life’s savings to the George Washington Carver Foundation, based at Tuskegee, so that his pioneering work could be continued.

Among the accolades and honors accrued during his lifetime, Carver was the subject of a 1938 feature film entitled “Life of George Washington Carver,” was named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts of London, was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for distinguished service in agricultural chemistry, and received the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture from Theodore Roosevelt.

Carver died in 1943. Posthumous honors ranged from his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, to a museum bearing his name at Tuskegee, and Iowa State’s award of an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. In 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a National Monument at Carver’s birthplace, the first to honor an African American. The epitaph on Carver’s grave is a fitting summary of his greatness: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

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