George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who developed hundreds of products using peanuts (though not peanut butter, as is often claimed), sweet potatoes and soybeans. Born an African-American slave a year before the practice was outlawed, Carver left home at a young age to pursue education and would eventually earn a master’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State University. He would go on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University for decades, and soon after his death his childhood home would be named a national monument — the first of its kind to honor an African American.
George Washington Carver’s Early Life
Born on a farm near Diamond, Missouri, the exact date of Carver’s birth is unknown, but it’s thought he was born in January or June of 1864.
Nine years prior, Moses Carver, a white farm owner, purchased George Carver’s mother Mary when she was 13 years old. The elder Carver reportedly was against slavery, but needed help with his 240-acre farm.
When Carver was an infant, he, his mother and his sister were kidnapped from the Carver farm by one of the bands of slave raiders that roamed Missouri during the Civil War era. They were sold in Kentucky.
Moses Carver hired a neighbor to retrieve them, but the neighbor only succeeded in finding George, whom he purchased by trading one of Moses’ finest horses. Carver grew up knowing little about his mother or his father, who had died in an accident before he was born.
Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised the young George and his brother James as their own and taught the boys how to read and write.
James gave up his studies and focused on working the fields with Moses. George, however, was a frail and sickly child who could not help with such work; instead, Susan taught him how to cook, mend, embroider, do laundry and garden, as well as how to concoct simple herbal medicines.
At a young age, Carver took a keen interest in plants and experimented with natural pesticides, fungicides and soil conditioners. He became known as the “the plant doctor” to local farmers due to his ability to discern how to improve the health of their gardens, fields and orchards.
At age 11, Carver left the farm to attend an all-black school in the nearby town of Neosho.
He was taken in by a childless African-American couple named Andrew and Mariah Watkins, who gave him a roof over his head in exchange for help with household chores. A midwife and nurse, Mariah imparted on Carver her broad knowledge of medicinal herbs and her devout faith.
Disappointed with the education he received at the Neosho school, Carver moved to Kansas about two years later, joining numerous other African Americans who were traveling west.
For the next decade or so, Carver moved from one Midwestern town to another, putting himself through school and surviving off of the domestic skills he learned from his foster mothers.
He graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas, in 1880 and applied to Highland College in Kansas. He was initially accepted at the all-white college but was later rejected when the administration learned he was black.
In the late 1880s, Carver befriended the Milhollands, a white couple in Winterset, Iowa, who encouraged him to pursue a higher education. Despite his former setback, he enrolled in Simpson College, a Methodist school that admitted all qualified applicants.
Carver initially studied art and piano in hopes of earning a teaching degree, but one of his professors, Etta Budd, was skeptical of a black man being able to make a living as an artist. After learning of his interests in plants and flowers, Budd encouraged Carver to apply to the Iowa State Agricultural School (now Iowa State University) to study botany.
In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Impressed by Carver’s research on the fungal infections of soybean plants, his professors asked him to stay on for graduate studies.
Carver worked with famed mycologist (fungal scientist) L.H. Pammel at the Iowa State Experimental Station, honing his skills in identifying and treating plant diseases.
In 1896, Carver earned his Master of Agriculture degree and immediately received several offers, the most attractive of which came from Booker T. Washington (whose last name George would later add to his own) of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
Washington convinced the university’s trustees to establish an agricultural school, which could only be run by Carver if Tuskegee was to keep its all-black faculty. Carver accepted the offer and would work at Tuskegee Institute for the rest of his life.
Carver at Tuskegee Institute
Carver’s early years at Tuskegee were not without hiccups.
For one, agriculture training was not popular — Southern farmers believed they already knew how to farm and students saw schooling as a means to escape farming. Additionally, many faculty members resented Carver for his high salary and demand to have two dormitory rooms, one for him and one for his plant specimens.
Carver also struggled with the demands of the faculty position he held. He wanted to devote his time to researching agriculture for ways to help out poor Southern farmers, but he was also expected to manage the school’s two farms, teach, insure the school’s toilets and sanitary facilities worked properly, and sit on multiple committees and councils.
Carver and Washington had a complicated relationship and would butt heads often, in part because Carver wanted little to do with teaching (though he was beloved by his students). Carver would eventually get his way when Washington died in 1915 and was succeeded by Robert Russa Moton, who relieved Carver of his teaching duties except for summer school.
Carver’s Fruitful Research
By this time, Carver already had great successes in the laboratory and the community. He taught poor farmers that they could feed hogs acorns instead of commercial feed and enrich croplands with swamp muck instead of fertilizers.
His idea of crop rotation proved to be most valuable.
Through his work on soil chemistry, Carver learned that years of growing cotton had depleted the nutrients from soil, resulting in low yields. But by growing nitrogen-fixing plants like peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, the soil could be restored, allowing yield to increase dramatically when the land is reverted to cotton use a few years later.
To further help farmers, he invented the Jessup wagon, a kind of mobile (horse-drawn) classroom and laboratory used to demonstrate soil chemistry.
The Peanut Man
Farmers, of course, loved the high yields of cotton they were now getting from Carver’s crop rotation technique. But the method had an unintended consequence: A surplus of peanuts and other non-cotton products.
Carver set to work on finding alternative uses for these products. For example, he invented numerous products from sweet potatoes, including edible products like flour and vinegar and non-food items such as stains, dyes, paints and writing ink.
But Carver’s biggest success came from peanuts.
In all, he developed more than 300 food, industrial and commercial products from peanuts, including milk, Worcestershire sauce, punches, cooking oils and salad oil, paper, cosmetics, soaps and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines, such as antiseptics, laxatives and goiter medications.
It should be noted, however, that many of these suggestions or discoveries remained curiosities and did not find widespread applications.
In 1921, Carver appeared before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of the peanut industry, which was seeking tariff protection. Though his testimony did not begin well, he described the wide range of products that could made from peanuts, which not only earned him a standing ovation but also convinced the committee to approve a high protected tariff for the common legume.
He then became known as “The Peanut Man.”
Carver’s Fame and Legacy
In the last two decades of his life, Carver lived as a minor celebrity but his focus was always on helping people.
He traveled the South to promote racial harmony, and he traveled to India to discuss nutrition in developing nations with Mahatma Gandhi.
Up until the year of his death, he also released bulletins for the public (44 bulletins between 1898 and 1943). Some of the bulletins reported on research findings but many others were more practical in nature and included cultivation information for farmers, science for teachers and recipes for housewives.
In the mid-1930s, when the polio virus raged in America, Carver became convinced that peanuts were the answer. He offered a treatment of peanut-oil massages and reported positive results, though no scientific evidence exists that the treatments worked (the benefits patients experienced were likely due to the massage treatment and attentive care rather than the oil).
Carver died on January 5, 1943, at Tuskegee Institute.
Soon after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation for Carver to receive his own monument, an honor previously only granted to presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln: the George Washington Carver National Monument now stands in Diamond, Missouri. Carver was also posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
George Washington Carver; American Chemical Society.
George W. Carver (1865? – 1943); The State Historical Society of Missouri.
George Washington Carver; Science History Museum.
George Washington Carver: Biography, Inventions & Quotes; LiveScience.
George Washington Carver, The Black History Monthiest Of Them All; NPR.
George Washington Carver And The Peanut; American Heritage.