George Washington Carver

From New World Encyclopedia

At work in his laboratory

George Washington Carver (c. early 1864 – January 5, 1943) was an African American botanist who dedicated his life to applying science and technology toward benefiting the lives of everyday people. Despite the fact that he was born into difficult and changing times near the end of the Civil War and had to deal with the challenges of slavery and poverty, Carver made contributions to the understanding and development of the South’s economic potential. He worked in agricultural extension at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and taught former slaves farming techniques for self-sufficiency.

Carver said that in his search for truth he embraced both faith and inquiry. His research and novel ideas eventually achieved influence in such diverse sectors as agriculture, automobiles, housing, and health care.

Early years

Carver was born into slavery in Newton County, Newton County, Marion Township, near Diamond Grove, now known as Diamond, Missouri. The exact date of birth is unknown due to the haphazard record keeping by slave owners but "it seems likely that he was born in the spring of 1864."[1] His owner, Moses Carver, was a German-American immigrant who had purchased George's mother, Mary, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855 for seven hundred dollars. The identity of Carver's father is unknown but he believed his father was from a neighboring farm and died "shortly after Carver's a log-hauling accident"[2]. Carver had three sisters and a brother, all of whom died prematurely.

When Carver was an infant, he, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by Confederate night raiders and sold in Arkansas, a common practice. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them. Only Carver was found, orphaned and near death from whooping cough. Carver's mother and sister had already died, although some reports stated that his mother and sister had gone north with the soldiers. For returning Carver, Moses Carver rewarded Bentley with his best filly that would later produce winning race horses. The episode caused Carver a bout of respiratory disease that left him with a permanently weakened constitution. Because of this, he was unable to work as a field hand and spent his time wandering the fields, drawn to the varieties of wild plants. He became so knowledgeable that he was known by Moses Carver's neighbors as the "Plant Doctor."

One day he was called to a neighbor's house to help with a plant in need. When he had fixed the problem, he was told to go into the kitchen to collect his reward. When he entered the kitchen, he saw no one. He did, however, see something that changed his life: beautiful paintings of flowers on the walls of the room. From that moment on, he knew that he was going to be an artist as well as a botanist.

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

Since blacks were not allowed at the school in Diamond Grove and he had received news that there was a school for blacks ten miles south in Neosho, Missouri, he resolved to go there at once.

At the age of 13, due to his desire to attend high school, he relocated to the home of another foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing the beating to death of a black man at the hands of a group of white men, Carver left Fort Scott. He subsequently attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.

After high school, Carver started a laundry business in Olathe, Kansas.


Over the next few years, Carver sent letters to several colleges and was finally accepted at Highland College in Kansas. He traveled to the college, but he was rejected when they discovered that he was black.

Carver's travels took him to Winterset, Iowa in the mid-1880s, where he met the Milhollands, a white couple who he later credited with encouraging him to pursue higher education. The Milhollands urged Carver to enroll in nearby Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, which he did, despite his reluctance due to his Highland College rejection.

In 1887, he was accepted into Simpson as its first African-American student. He transferred in 1891 to Iowa State University (then Iowa State Agricultural College), where he was the first black student, and later the first black faculty member.

In order to avoid confusion with another George Carver in his classes, he began to use the name George Washington Carver.

While in college at Simpson, he showed a strong aptitude for singing and art. His art teacher, Etta Budd, was the daughter of the head of the department of horticulture at Iowa State, Joseph Budd. Etta convinced Carver to pursue a career that paid better than art and so he transferred to Iowa State.

At the end of Carver's undergraduate career in 1894, Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel, who had been impressed with his potential, convinced him to stay at Iowa State to work for his master's degree. Carver then performed research at the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station under Pammel from 1894 to his graduation in 1896. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist.

Rise to fame

In 1896 Carver was recruited to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (today known as Tuskegee University) by Booker T. Washington in Alabama. He remained there for 47 years until his death in 1943.

Carver embraced both faith and inquiry in his search for truth. His belief that a commitment to a “larger reality” is required if science and technology are to help humankind was expressed by his own words:

My prayers seem to be more of an attitude than anything else. I indulge in very little lip service, but ask the Great Creator silently daily, and often many times per day to permit me to speak to him through the three great Kingdoms of the world, which he has created, viz.— the Animal, Mineral, and Vegetable Kingdoms; their relations to each other, to us, our relations to them and the Great God who made all of us. I ask him daily and often momently to give me wisdom, understanding and bodily strength to do His will, hence I am asking and receiving all the time.[3]

Taking an interest in the plight of poor Southern farmers working with soil depleted by repeated crops of cotton, Carver was one of many agricultural workers who advocated employing the well-known practice of crop rotation by alternating cotton crops with other plants, such as legumes (peanuts, cowpeas), or sweet potato to restore nitrogen to the soil. Thus, the cotton crop was improved and alternative cash crops added. He developed an agricultural extension system in Alabama—based on that created at Iowa State University—to train farmers in raising these crops and an industrial research laboratory to develop uses for them.

Peanut specimen collected by Carver

To promote the use of these crops, Carver compiled lists of recipes and products, some of which were original, that used the crops. His peanut applications included glue, printer's ink, dyes, punches, varnishing cream, soap, rubbing oils, and cooking sauces. He made similar investigations into uses for sweet potato, cowpea and pecan. There is no documented connection between these recipes and any practical commercial products; nonetheless, he was to become famous as an inventor partly on the basis of these recipes.

In 1906, responding to the direction of Booker T. Washington to "take their teaching into the community," Carver designed a horse drawn vehicle that students (of Tuskegee Institute) built named Jesup Agricultural Wagon after Morris K. Jesup, a New York financier who supported the project. By 1930, this "movable school," now a mechanized truck, carried a nurse, a home demonstration agent, an agricultural agent, and an architect. Eventually, community services were expanded and educational films and lectures were presented to local churches and schools.[4]

Until 1915, Carver was not widely known for his agricultural research. However, he became one of the best-known African-Americans of his era when he was praised by Theodore Roosevelt. In 1916 he was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England, one of only a handful of Americans at that time to receive this honor. By 1920 with the growth of the peanut market in the U.S., the market was flooded with peanuts from China. That year, southern farmers came together to plead their cause before congressional committee hearings on the tariff. Carver was elected to speak at the hearings. On arrival, Carver was mocked by surprised southern farmers, but he was not deterred and began to explain some of the many uses for the peanut. Initially given ten minutes to present, the now spellbound committee extended his time again and again. The committee rose in applause as he finished his presentation. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 included a tariff on imported peanuts.

Carver's presentation to Congress made him famous. He was particularly successful, then and later, because of his natural amiability, showmanship, and courtesy to all audiences, regardless of race and politics. In this period, the American public showed a great enthusiasm for inventors such as Thomas Edison, and it was delighted to see an African-American expert such as Carver.

Business leaders came to seek Carver's help and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Delano Roosevelt—met with Carver. The crown prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks. Carver's best known guest was Henry Ford, who built a laboratory for Carver. Carver also did extensive work with soy, which he and Ford considered as an alternative fuel.

In 1923, Carver received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, awarded annually for outstanding achievement. In 1928, Simpson College bestowed Carver with an honorary doctorate.

In 1940, Carver established the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee University. In 1941, the George Washington Carver Museum was dedicated at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1942, Carver received the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture.

Written Work and Inventions

During his time at Tuskegee (over four decades), Carver's official published work consisted mainly of 44 practical bulletins for farmers.[5] His first bulletin in 1898 was on feeding acorns to farm animals. His final bulletin in 1943 was about the peanut. He also published six bulletins on sweet potatoes, five on cotton and four on cowpeas. Some other individual bulletins dealt with alfalfa, wild plum, tomato, ornamental plants, corn, poultry, dairying, hogs, preserving meats in hot weather, and nature study in schools.

Carver reputedly discovered three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. Among the listed items that he suggested to southern farmers to help them economically were his recipes and improvements to/for: adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes, ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder and wood stain. Three patents (one for cosmetics, and two for paints and stains) were issued to Carver in the years 1925 to 1927; however, they were not commercially successful in the end. Aside from these patents and some recipes for food, he left no formulas or procedures for making his products.[6] He did not keep a laboratory notebook.

Carver's fame today is typically summarized by the claim that he invented more than three hundred uses for the peanut. However, Carver's lists contain many products he did not invent; the lists also have many redundancies. The 105 recipes in Carver's 1916 bulletin[7] were common kitchen recipes, but some appear on lists of his peanut inventions, including salted peanuts, bar candy, chocolate coated peanuts, peanut chocolate fudge, peanut wafers and peanut brittle. Carver acknowledged over two dozen other publications as the sources of the 105 peanut recipes.[8] Carver's list of peanut inventions includes 30 cloth dyes, 19 leather dyes, 18 insulating boards, 17 wood stains, 11 wall boards and 11 peanut flours.[9] These six products alone account for 100 "uses."

Recipe number 51 on the list of 105 peanut uses describes a "peanut butter" that led to the belief that Carver invented the modern product with this name. It is a recipe for making a common, contemporary oily peanut grit. It does not have the key steps (which would be difficult to achieve in a kitchen) for making stable, creamy peanut butter that were developed in 1922 by Joseph L. Rosefield.

Carver's original uses for peanuts include radical substitutes for existing products such as gasoline and nitroglycerin. These products remain mysterious because Carver never published his formulas, except for his peanut cosmetic patent. Many of them may only have been hypothetical proposals. Without Carver's formulas, others could not determine if his products were worthwhile or manufacture them.

Despite a common claim that Carver never tried to profit from his inventions, Carver did market a few of his peanut products. None was successful enough to sell for long. The Carver Penol Company sold a mixture of creosote and peanuts as a patent medicine for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. Other ventures were The Carver Products Company and the Carvoline Company. Carvoline Antiseptic Hair Dressing was a mix of peanut oil and lanolin. Carvoline Rubbing Oil was a peanut oil for massages. Carver received national publicity in the 1930s when he concluded that his peanut oil massage was a cure for polio. It was eventually determined that the massage produced the benefit, not the peanut oil. Carver had been a trainer for the Iowa State football team and was experienced in giving massages.

Death and Afterwards

Upon returning home one day, Carver took a bad fall down a flight of stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who took him to a hospital. Carver died January 5, 1943 at the age of 79 from complications resulting from this fall.

On his grave was written the simplest and most meaningful summary of his life. He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.

On July 14, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National Monument west-southwest of Diamond, Missouri - an area where Carver had spent time in his childhood.[10] This dedication marked the first national monument dedicated to an African-American. At this 210-acre national monument, there is a bust sculpture of Carver, a three-quarter-mile nature trail, a museum, the 1881 Moses Carver house, and the Carver cemetery.

Carver appeared on U.S. commemorative stamps in 1948 and 1998, and was depicted on a commemorative half-dollar coin from 1951 to 1954. The USS George Washington Carver, a now-decommissioned nuclear-powered submarine, was named in his honor. Many institutions honor George Washington Carver to this day, particularly the American public school system. Dozens of elementary schools and high schools are named after him.

In 1977, Carver was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1990, Carver was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Iowa State University awarded Carver the doctor of humane letters in 1994. On February 15, 2005, an episode of Modern Marvels included scenes from within Iowa State University's Food Sciences Building and about Carver's work.


  1. Linda McMurry, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, ISBN 0195032055), pp. 9-10.
  2. McMurry, 10.
  3. George Washington Carver. Wikiquote. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  4. Legends of Tuskegee: George Washington Carver — Jessup Wagon. ParkNet – National Park Service. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  5. Carver Bulletins. Tuskegee University. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  6. Barry Mackintosh, 1977, “George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on a Much-loved Myth.” American Heritage 28 (5): 66-73.
  7. George Washington Carver, 1916, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” Tuskegee Institute Experimental Station Bulletin 31. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  8. Andrew F. Smith, Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002, ISBN 0252025539), p. 88.
  9. By-Products From Peanuts By George Washington Carver. George Washington Carver National Monument. Retrieved June 19, 2007.
  10. George Washington Carver National Monument. National Park Service. Retrieved June 19, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kremer, Gary R. (ed.). George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. Reprint edition, 1991. ISBN 0826207855
  • Mackintosh, Barry. “George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth.” The Journal of Southern History 42(4) (1976): 507-528.
  • McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. ISBN 0195032055

External links

All links retrieved May 21, 2024.


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