George Washington Carver: African American Agricultural Chemist and Inventor

Updated on September 9, 2019
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver

Early Years

George was born into slavery around 1864 or 1865, on a farm in the small southwest Missouri town of Diamond Grove, Missouri. His mother, Mary, was a slave owned by Moses and Susan Carver. George’s father, whose name is unknown, was probably a slave from a nearby farm who died before George’s birth. George, his sister, and mother were kidnapped by raiders from Arkansas during the Civil War. George was later ransomed back to the Carvers in exchange for a valuable racehorse. The fate of his mother and sister remains unknown. The Carvers took care of George and his brother James after they were freed from slavery by the Civil War. George was a frail and sickly child and unable to work in the fields, so Mrs. Carver put him to work in the house where he learned to cook, do laundry, and tend to the garden. It was during his youth that he developed his love of nature, later writing of the time, “Day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauties and put them in my little garden I had hidden in brush.” George took the last name of Carver due to the kind treatment shown by the Carvers, and he would speak fondly of them and go back and visit them after he left the farm to seek his place in the world.

Hungry for education, at about age fourteen he left Diamond Grove and went to the nearby town of Neosho, Missouri, to attend a public school that had been set up for black children. George did household and farm chores for a family in exchange for his room and board while at the school. On the weekends, he traveled back to live with the Carvers in Diamond Grove. Two years later, after learning all that the simple school had to offer, he moved to Kansas where he attended several different schools while working as a laundry worker and cook to support himself. In 1884 he graduated from the public high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, and it was there that he took the middle name “Washington” to avoid confusion with the other George Carver in town.

With strong recommendations from his high school teachers, he mailed in his application and was accepted into a small Presbyterian college in Highland, Kansas. When George arrived at the school, the faculty realized he was black and denied him admission. Discouraged and feeling the bitter sting of discrimination, George spent the next six years working odd jobs in Kansas and tried his luck as a homestead farmer. For nearly two years he battled the blazing summer sun and frigid winters near Beller, Kansas, before calling it quits.

George Washington Carver and his flower art work.
George Washington Carver and his flower art work.

Higher Education

Wanting to once again attend college, he mortgaged his homestead and moved to Winterset, Iowa. With encouragement from a friendly white family, George gained admission to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, in the fall of 1890. He supported himself by doing laundry work and studied art and music at the college. He was a talented artist and four of his paintings of flowers were included in an Iowa art exhibit. One of the pictures was sent on to be part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The faculty at Simpson soon realized that with Carver’s love and knowledge of plants he had a more promising future in agriculture than in art. They persuaded him to transfer to Iowa State College of Agriculture at Ames. His studies brought him in contact with three future United States Secretaries of Agriculture: James Wilson, then the director of Iowa’s agricultural experiment station, and Henry C. Wallace, then an assistant professor of agriculture. Both men would exert a great influence on the young man. The third future secretary of agriculture was the six-year-old Henry A. Wallace. George tutored the young boy on the mysteries of plant fertilization. The young Wallace would go on to become not only the secretary of agriculture, but the vice president of the United States under President Franklin Roosevelt. He later wrote of Carver, calling him the “kindliest, most patient teacher I ever knew” and declaring, “He could cause a little boy to see the things which he saw in a grass flower.”

Carver completed his B.S. degree in agriculture in 1894 and then remained at the college to work toward a master’s degree. For two years he worked as a faculty assistant to the accomplished botanist Louis H. Pammel, who put Carver in charge of the college greenhouse. There he conducted experiments in cross-fertilization and propagation of plants. Pammel praised Carver as the ablest student in his years at the college

George Washington Carver (middle, lower row) and the 1906 Agricultural Department at Tuskegee Institute.
George Washington Carver (middle, lower row) and the 1906 Agricultural Department at Tuskegee Institute.

Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute

With his new graduate degree awarded in 1896, he accepted a position at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The school, founded and administered by Booker T. Washington, was for the education of young black men and women. To entice Carver to Tuskegee, Washington offered him $1000 a year plus board “to include all expenses except travel.” Carver went to work at the school and in addition to his teaching load, he spent much of his time in experimentation with plants. The school was short on funds to equip his laboratory so he and his students built their own laboratory equipment from anything they could scavenge.

The southern farm economy was built around cotton; as a result, much of the land had been over farmed with this single crop. The cotton plants leached valuable nutrients from the soil and prevented the farmers from growing crops to feed their families—it was a viscous cycle. The yield from the cotton crops was typically low due in part to the poor farmers not being able to buy enough fertilizer to boost production. To make matter worse for the farmers, the boll weevil, an insect that infests cotton plants, was ravaging their crops and destroyed millions of pounds of cotton each year. Carver bred a hybrid variety of the cotton plant that was hardier and more resistant to the damage done by the boll weevil.

Chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, circa 1902. Carver stands second from right, facing front.
Chemistry laboratory at Tuskegee Institute, circa 1902. Carver stands second from right, facing front.

Helping the Farmer

Carver took on the task of helping the farmers of the South by introducing crops that were easy to grow and full of nutrition. In 1897 he began experimenting with sweet potatoes, and developed techniques to obtain a good crop in marginal soil. Next he worked on developing over a hundred ways to prepare sweet potatoes and to convert them into flour, sugar, and bread.

To spread the word on his improved farming techniques he developed a “movable school of agriculture.” The converted wagon, financed by the New York philanthropist Morris K. Jesup, carried equipment to the homes of rural families. The “school” later incorporated demonstrations in home economics as well as agriculture and was transported by a motorized truck. Carver considered his mobile school to be one of his most important contributions to rural education.

To reinvigorate the depleted soil, in 1902 he began experimentation with black-eyed peas, a nitrogen-rich legume. The legume is a type of plant that produces nitrogen compounds that help the plant grow and when it dies, the fixed nitrogen is released, making it available to other plants, thus fertilizing the soil. By rotating the crops in a field between cotton one year and black-eyed peas the next year, the soil remained fertile, allowing production of a considerable cotton crop without the need for expensive fertilizers. To turn the black-eyed peas into a staple food in the home, Carver developed over forty recipes for the pea so they could be made into, among other things, pancakes, pudding, and croquettes.

It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success

— George Washington Carver

A Religious Man

Carver found God at an early age and became a practicing Christian for the remainder of his days. For him Christianity was joyous religion of love that went beyond the Protestant work ethic or the fear of eternal damnation. In early 1907, students asked him to help organize a Bible class on Sunday evenings. The first meeting was held at the library and about fifty students gathered to hear Professor Carver tell the creation story, complete with maps and charts. The class became popular and after a few months over one hundred students attended the voluntary class. One student, attending for the first time, recalled upon entering the classroom “smiling faces…created an atmosphere of welcome” and for the “first time in my life I was witnessing no gloom surrounding the Bible.” Carver would go on to teach the class for the next thirty years. He attributed many of his discoveries not to himself, but to the hand of God working through him.

Mr. Peanut

Much of Carver’s fame comes from his work with peanuts which, before he began developing a practical use for the plant in early 1900s, were primarily being used as livestock feed. Carver encouraged farmers to grow peanuts, a legume, along with black-eyed peas as a rotation crop to replenish the soil. Once the peanut plant became popular in the South, he began to introduce recipes for peanuts. The peanuts were a rich source of vegetable oil that could be turned into various products. By 1916 he had developed over one-hundred peanut based products, including cheese, facial creams, printer’s ink, medicine, shampoo, soap, vinegar, wood stain, and peanut paste—similar to modern peanut butter. He found that roasted peanuts could be ground into a smooth, creamy butter that was rich in protein and would last longer than dairy butter. By the 1920s peanut butter was becoming a household staple across the United States.

Carver gained national attention in 1921 when he presented testimony for peanut growers in a hearing on the Fordney-McCumber tariff bill before the House Ways and Means Committee. The May 1921 edition of the trade magazine Peanut World called Carver a “miracle worker” and an “incomparable genius whose tireless energies and inquisitive mind” contributed much to the development of the peanut industry.

Though Carver had a very fertile and inventive mind, he did not seek to gain financially from his innovations. Rather, he wanted his work to be distributed as widely as possible to benefit all of society. Patent Office records indicate only one patent granted to Carver, which was in 1925 for a process of producing pigments from clay and iron. The wealthy industrialist Thomas Edison offered Carver a lucrative job, which he promptly declined, citing his unwillingness to leave Tuskegee.

George Washington Carver and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
George Washington Carver and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.

— George Washington Carver

Discrimination

Like many people of color, George Carver experienced racial discrimination, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. As he traveled around the country, whether attending a meeting, giving a presentation, or traveling for pleasure, the eating and lodging options were limited as many establishments wouldn’t serve colored people. In whatever circumstance he found himself, Carver seemed to have the ability to rise above the indignity and pursue his mission for the Tuskegee Institute and the advancement of his people with unrelenting zeal.

George Washington Carver - Scientist and Inventor| Mini Bio

Out of the Mainstream of Science

Carver did not take the normal path of an academic scientist; he did not attend professional meetings of chemists and botanists or publish his papers in scientific journals. He was seldom mentioned in publications of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for his scientific work. His path was to take his discoveries directly to the farmers and housewives of the rural South—they were his audience. His numerous experiment station bulletins went directly to the people he was trying to help. However, he was not without notice from the greater scientific and agricultural establishment. In 1935 he was appointed as a collaborator in the Mycology and Plant Disease Survey of the Bureau of Plant Industry. Though none of his scientific work rose to the level to be considered for a Nobel Prize, he did make real contributions to the advancement of science and fostered the greater good of society.

George Washington Carver National Monument and Museum in Diamond, Missouri.
George Washington Carver National Monument and Museum in Diamond, Missouri.

Final Years and Legacy

In 1939 Carver’s health began to fail, preventing him from conducting new research and limiting his lecture trips. During this time, he worked to raise money for his George Washington Carver Museum and a research laboratory at Tuskegee. When he was able to travel, he usually spoke at religious gatherings or attended an awards ceremony in his honor. During the last few years of his life, he was taken to the hospital near death on more than one occasion.

George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943, of complications from a bad fall down a flight of stairs. He was buried on the grounds of Tuskegee University next to Booker T. Washington. Through his frugality, he had managed to save $60,000, which he donated during his final years to his museum and foundation. Upon learning of Carver’s death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the message: “All mankind are beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which we achieve in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere.”

After his death, Congress established the George Washington Carver National Monument near his birthplace in what is now Diamond, Missouri. The over two hundred acre park and museum was founded in 1943 by President Franklin Roosevelt. His monument was the first national monument dedicated to an African American and the first to a non-president. Carver has also been honored by the U.S. Postal Service through the issuance of several postage stamps to honor his life and accomplishments. From 1951 to 1954, the U.S. Mint also issued a commemorative half dollar that featured the likeness of George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. Perhaps the greatest tribute to George Washington Carver can be found in the way he lived his life, always striving for the greater good through seemingly insurmountable obstacles—a true inspiration for all mankind.

References

Carey, Charles W. American Scientists. Facts on File. 2006.

Daintith, John and Derek Gjertsen, General Editors. Oxford Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford University Press. 1999.

James, Edward T., Editor. Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement Three 1941-1945. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1973.

Kessler, James H. and J.S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd, Katherine A. Morin. Distinguished African American Scientists of the 20th Century. Greenwood Publishing Group. 1996.

McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver: Scientist & Symbol. Oxford University Press. 1982.

Questions & Answers

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      • dougwest1 profile imageAUTHOR

        Doug West 

        5 weeks ago from Missouri

        Mary, Tim:

        The story of GW Carver is very inspirational. All the troubles that he overcame make the troubles in my own life insignificant in comparison.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

        I'm glad you wrote about this great man. It is amazing how he rose from slavery to such dignity at a time when it was not easy for coloured people. We all can learn from him.

      • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

        Tim Truzy 

        5 weeks ago from U.S.A.

        This is a fabulous story, Doug. I never knew how many men George Washington Carver actually influenced. I particularly like the fact that he focused on service over receiving monetary gains. Many of us across the world and in our country can learn from such figures like this great agricultural and spiritual man. Excellent, uplifting, and informative as always. Respectfully, Tim

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