George Washington Carver: Scientist and Inventor

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The Early Years

Carver was born in 1864 in Diamond, Missouri to Mary and Giles who were an enslaved couple living on the plantation of Moses Carver and his wife Susan. When he was just a week old, George, his sister and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders from Arkansas. They were sold to a slave owner in Kentucky. The Carvers sent a neighbor to look for the three of them, but the neighbor could only locate George. The neighbor exchanged one of the Carvers’ finest horses for George, who he then brought back to the Carvers.

 The following year of 1865 saw the end of the Civil War andthe emancipation of slaves. As George’s father had died before he was born andthe Carvers still could not locate his mother, they decided to raise George themselves. Susan taught George to read and write since none of the nearby schools would admit George due to him being black.  Because George was a small and sickly child and could not work in the fields, Susan also taught him how to cook, mend, do the laundry, and to work in the garden. She also taught George how to concoct simple herbal medicines.

George showed an aptitude for working with plants and soils. He was known as the “plant doctor” by local farmers due to his ability to ability to help improve the health of their gardens, fields, and orchards.

Pursuit of Education

Carver at Tuskegee Institute

When he was just 11 years old, George left the Carver’s home in order to pursue a more formal education at an all black high school in nearby Neosho. However, he was disappointed by his education at the school, so he decided to move west to Kansas to go to high school there. For the next decade or so, George moved from town to town until he finally graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.

Upon graduation from high school, George applied to Highland College in Kansas. The school, which did not admit black students, originally accepted George based on his academic merits. Once they found out he was black however, the school opted not to admit him.

Undeterred by his rejection, Carver applied to Simpson College in Kansas in order to study art and music so that he could become a teacher. The school accepted him and while he showed a talent for art, one of his professors, Etta Budd, noticed that Carver also had talent for botany (the study of plants).  Budd encouraged Carver to apply at the Iowa State Agricultural School (now known as Iowa State University) to study botany. Carver applied and was accepted.

Carver became not only the first black student at the school; he was the first student to receive his Bachelor of Science degree. His professors were so impressed with Carver’s study of fungal infection of soybean plants that they asked him to stay in order for graduate studies. After receiving his graduate degree, Carver received several offers from universities. He decided to accept the offer from Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Innovative Research to Help Farmers

While working as a professor and a researcher at Tuskegee Institute, Carver led the way in researching ways to help struggling farmers in the south revive their farms.

Carver in his office at Tuskegee Institute. 

After the Civil War, farmers in the south, including sharecroppers who were former slaves, were struggling to make ends meet.  For years, southern farms had produced one primary crop: cotton. Due to overproduction of cotton, the soil of these farms had lost its nutrients and so the farms were no longer producing enough cotton to make a profit.

Carver proposed the idea of rotating the crops, so that they included peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes. Peanuts and soybeans in particular are rich in nitrogen which helped to revitalize the soil so that the farms could produce plenty of cotton every three to four years. While growing peanuts and soy beans helped to revitalize the soil, it did create another problem: what to do with all those peanuts and soybeans.

In order to solve the problem of low demand for peanuts and soybeans, Carver set to work in finding other uses for these crops. Carver developed more than 300 different uses for the peanut, including milk, Worcestershire sauce, cooking oils, salad oil, cosmetics, soaps, and wood stains. However, contrary to popular belief, Carver did not in fact invent peanut butter. In addition to the many uses for peanuts that he developed, Carver also helped develop uses for the sweet potato including flour, vinegar, stains, dyes, paints, and writing ink. Due to his many discoveries for uses for the peanut, Carver became known as “The Peanut Man.”

Carver died at the Tuskegee Institute on January 5, 1943.

George Washington Carver Fun Facts

  • Carver adopted the name Washington from Booker T.Washington, who hired Carver at the Tuskegee Institute
  • Carver testified before congress to help promote tariffs on peanuts imported from foreign countries
  • Carver was a well-connected man whose friendships included Henry Ford and John Harvey Kellogg (of cereal fame)
  • Carver traveled to India where he gave a speech and met Mahatma Gandhi
  • Carver turned down a six figure job offer from Thomas Edison

Sources

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