Not just peanuts: Why George Washington Carver is considered one of history’s most important scientists

George Washington Carver

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Not to know is bad; Not to wish to know is worse. – African Proverb

George Washington Carver: The story of the man who revolutionized Southern agriculture (1971)

The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware) January 8, 1971

Ransomed from night riders for a horse, George Washington Carver developed into one of the great scientific minds in Western history. He had been labeled the “Savior of the South” for the work he did to revitalize that area’s agricultural industry.

Born in Diamond Grove, Missouri, in 1864, his mother was a slave owned by Moses Carver, a German immigrant to the Ozark area.

George was a child when his father died. After the death, George and his mother were kidnapped by night riders. His mother was never recovered, but Moses Carver was able to ransom young George from the night riders in exchange for a horse.

George Washington Carver in his lab-gigapixel-width-1490px

As a youth, Carver demonstrated an unquenchable desire for education, and walked eight miles daily to attend the Lincoln School for Negro Children, established by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

After graduating from high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, he applied and was accepted at Highland University. When he arrived at the school to start his education, however, he was rejected, because the school did not accept blacks.

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Carver refused to accept the fact he would not be allowed to receive a college education because he was black, so he applied to Simpson College in Iowa, where he was able to begin.

Always maintaining his desire to return to the South and help his people, Carver transferred in 1891 to the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1894.

Following his graduation, Carver — who was the first black graduate from the college — served as the school’s first black faculty member and specialized in hybridizing fruits.

George Washington Carver illustration 1931

Word of Carver’s genius spread throughout the country’s educational community rapidly, and in 1896, Carver was asked by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Immediately after his arrival at Tuskegee, Carver opened an agricultural experimental station, and began the undertaking which was destined to make him famous and revolutionize Southern agriculture.

Aside from service to black people, Carver set as his goal the task of rejuvenating the land destroyed by the one-crop-system (cotton was the only crop produced) and finding new commercial uses for other native crops.

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His search for new products on which the South could base its economy led to the discovery of literally hundreds of byproducts from the peanut, sweet potato and soybean.

From the peanut, Dr. Carver was able to extract meal, instant and dry coffee, bleach, tan remover, wood filler, metal polish, paper, ink, shaving cream, rubbing oil, linoleum, synthetic rubber, plastic and scores of other products.

Professor George Washington Carver

From the soybean and sweet potato, Carver developed numerous food substitutes and other derivatives to help solve the shortage of supplies during World War I.

One of the first supporters of the use of legumes to replenish the soil laid bare by cotton, Carver’s work with the soil led him to the discovery of a large deposit of bentonite, a chemical that makes possible the re-use of newspaper pulp.

Carver’s work attracted so much acclaim, that in 1921, he was called before the House Ways and Means Committee, where he convinced skeptics that cotton need not be the sole product produced in the South.

After making an extensive presentation of his discoveries to the committee, the minds of many of the former skeptics were firmly on Carver’s side, and Congress went on to inaugurate the highest protective tariff the peanut industry has ever enjoyed.

Carver was always overrun by offers from scientists, government, industry and inventors. Thomas A. Edison sought to hire Carver, and Henry Ford set up a special laboratory for him.

Detroit Free Press Sun Jan 11 1959

A consultant for firms in many foreign countries, Carver was named a Fellow of the Royal Society in London in 1916, and received the Spingarn Medal in 1923.

Carver, who was never interested in making money for himself, donated thousands of dollars to the creation of the George Washington Carver Foundation, whose purpose it is to develop uses for agricultural wastes, and to create food products from common agricultural products.

Carver’s main contribution to humanity was the development of scientific processes for improving the land and the widening of the base of the South’s economy. Almost the entirety of his time outside of his small lab at Tuskegee was spent educating farmers in the area.

in 1953, Congress authorized the establishment of the George Washington Carver National Monument at the site of his birth. This was the first national monument dedicated to a black man.

MORE: Fighting for the Union: 20 African American soldiers from the Civil War

Drawing of George Washington Carver with a plant
George Washington Carver with a plant (Vintage drawing by Andre Le Blanc)

Dr. George Washington Carver, ”the wizard of Tuskegee,” who did more than any other man to ensure the maintenance of a stable economy in the South, died January 9, 1943, in Tuskegee. [This is two days after the death of fellow scientist Nikola Tesla.]

Buried alongside Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, Carver’s epitaph reads: “He would have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

George Washington Carver: ~1864 – January 5, 1943


George Washington Carver postage stamps from 1947
George Washington Carver postage stamps from 1947

Dr. Carver honored as a great American (1977)

By Peter Scott – The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) April 24, 1977

Tuskegee Institute, Alabama — George Washington Carver, a black scientist whose agricultural research is credited with improving the farm economy in the South during the early 1900s, has been named to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

In ceremonies marking the selection Saturday, a bronze bust of Carver was unveiled here, The same bust later will be transported to New York and placed in the ‘Hall of Fame colonnade at Bronx Community College.

Carver worked as a scientist and teacher at this small Alabama college from 1896 to 1943. The research laboratory used by Carver remains apart of the relics in a museum bearing his name here.

Chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, ca. 1902
Chemistry laboratory/classroom with students at the Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, Alabama. George Washington Carver stands second from right, facing front (framed by doorway).

The accolades for Carver were many.

U.S. Sen. James Allen of Alabama said he read about Carver in grade school and said, “I never cease to draw admiration and pride from his character and accomplishments. “He changed the picture of agriculture in Alabama and the South.”

“His commitment was more important than his many discoveries,” said Dr. Frederick Patterson, president emeritus of Tuskegee Institute. “He wanted to show the world that instead of embroiling itself in war and greed, we could take time to find out about the earth’s capacity for providing for mankind’s use.

“Other things were more colorful, but the abiding commitment by Dr. Carver to use every day working toward his goal was his most important accomplishment,” said Patterson.

Patterson told a packed audience in the Tuskegee Institute chapel that Carver left his life savings — $60,000 — to the school so that his research work would continue.

George Washington Carver - 1943

Dr. John Hope Franklin, a national figure in his own right, said there is no telling what Carver might have been had he been free to do everything he wanted.

MORE: 100 years ago, civil rights leader Booker T Washington talked with author H G Wells about America’s racial divide. Here’s how it went.

President Carter sent a telegram saying that the recognition of Carver is a fitting memorial to a man whose creative genius enriched our way of life.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace also praised Carver and reminded the audience in a telegram that Carver was featured in Alabama’s series of floats during the inaugural parade.

Long before President Carter brought prominence to the peanut, George Washington Carver was dissecting it and discovering a multiplicity of uses for it and its byproducts. His research efforts into the economic and nutritional value of the peanut led many Southern farmers to choose it over cotton as their chief harvest crop.

He discovered over 300 uses for the peanut, and another 100 for the sweet potato.

The Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama) December 22, 1929

When Carver accepted the invitation to teach at Tuskegee Institute from its founder, Booker T. Washington, he came as the school’s director of agriculture to help improve the lot of rural black farmers who had just been freed from slavery.

Although most Americans know of Carver from his discoveries surrounding the peanut and its many uses, he was an immensely talented man in other fields.

A consistent advocate of crop diversification as a solution to the depressed economy of the rural South in the early 1900s, Carver introduced cowpeas, sweet peas and soybeans as cash crops to the South, and demonstrated their versatility.

MORE: Nikola Tesla’s revolutionary ideas included wireless electricity & free power for everyone

For 40 years, Dr. Carver cooperated in mycological research with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His expertise in the study of plant fungi resulted in several American fungi being named for him, since he was first to identify them as a student in college.

Carver studied art, he played the piano well, and he was a talented painter. Some of his works were sought by major galleries, but he preferred to keep them at Tuskegee. Many remain in the museum here.

Carver was unconcerned with wealth. He regularly refused raises in salary, and frequently the treasurer at Tuskegee had to beg him to cash his paycheck so the school’s books could be balanced.

George Washington Carver - Vintage portrait

Carver is the second black American to be selected for membership in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. The first was his benefactor, Booker T. Washington.

The latest recognition of Carver comes nearly 35 years after his death. His induction into the Hall of Fame will be marked with a bust sculpted by Richmond Barthe, a Louisiana-born black artist whose works have been exhibited internationally.

The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, an independent institution, is the nation’s original hall of fame.

According to Dr. Jerry Grundfest, executive director, funds for the enshrinement of George Washington Carver were raised by Tuskegee Institute from foundations, donors and a National Park Service grant. (Tuskegee Institute has been designated a National Historic Site.)

Carver’s induction into the hall follows an impressive list of earlier accolades.

A U.S. postage stamp was issued in his honor in 1946, and 50-cent coins bearing his likeness were issued in 1952, 1953 and 1954. A Polaris submarine has been named for him, and his birthplace in Diamond Grove, Mo., is a national monument.

Washington and Carver on 1952 coin

Carver was recognized for his efforts to bring about interracial harmony as well as for his research.

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He traveled throughout the South, speaking to groups — many of them all-white — about his scientific work. During those meetings, it has been said by his followers, Carver often tried to convince his audiences of the need for interracial cooperation.

“You must not let the haters of this world divert you from the path of your own duty. For the time will come when the haters will have been consumed by their own hatred, and the ignorant will have learned the truth. And then, if you are prepared for it, you will walk the earth as free men, the equal of any other,” Carver told his audiences.

“If I use my energy struggling to right every wrong done to me, I would have no energy left for my work,” he once said.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. Let’s not talk about Carver’s role in the Emergency Use Authorization of penicillin, which was made possible by the introduction of syphilis to unknowing control group participates.

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