Botanist George Washington Carver in Arboretum
Botanist George Washington Carver in Arboretum
About the Photographer: This photograph of George Washington Carver was likely taken at an arboretum at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he worked from 1896 to 1943.
George Washington Carver was born circa 1864 as a slave on a plantation in Missouri. By the time this picture was taken, he had been a student and faculty member at Iowa State University—the first black student and the first black faculty member at that institution—and had probably been working at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University) for some years. Carver was an artist and noted botanist, most famous today for his work on the peanut. (He did not, however, invent peanut butter, as is often alleged.)
Carver was originally owned by German immigrants. He was orphaned at the time of the Civil War and raised by his former owners as a family member after the abolition of slavery. Weakened by whooping cough, he tended not to perform heavy field work, but helped with gardening and became knowledgeable about plants. "My very soul thirsted for an education," Carver later wrote. "I literally lived in the woods. I wanted to know every strange stone, flower, insect, bird, or beast."
Carver moved between several Southern towns in order to get first a grade-school and then a high-school education. In the 1880s, he applied to several colleges. He attended Simpson College, Iowa, from which he transferred to Iowa State University. He not only graduated from Iowa State, but stayed on to get a master's degree. While studying for his master's he worked at the university's Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, studying fungi (mycology) and plant diseases.
Carver moved to the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a black college founded by Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), today Tuskegee University, in 1896. He worked there until 1943, the year of his death. It was while at the Tuskegee Institute that he did the work on peanut products for which he is particularly remembered today. He claimed to have developed some 325 uses for the peanut, over one hundred uses for the sweet potato, and many more for other crops that could be raised as an alternative to cotton. Such alternatives were needed because non-stop cultivation of cotton, the South's main crop, exhausted the soil of nitrogen, necessary for growth. The sweet potato and the peanut are among crops that restore nitrogen to the soil. Alternating cotton with these other crops could preserve land in production, but farmers needed a market for the nitrogen-restoring crops—hence Carver's determination to make those crops useful.
There is no doubt that Carver was a competent botanist and scientist. He also became internationally famous, eventually meeting three U.S. presidents, the prince of Sweden, and Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). However, some historians note that accounts of his life routinely exaggerate his accomplishments. According to Barry Mackintosh, a historian working for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., "Carver displayed many peanut products not manufactured commercially, but virtually all were ersatz commodities more feasibly derived from other materials…. Because the great majority of products on Carver's list could be made more easily and cheaply from other substances, they were of little more than curiosity value." The peanut, for example, despite Carver's work, continued to be used mostly as a food (ground into a nut butter, or whole) or as a source of edible oil.
BOTANIST GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER IN ARBORETUM
See primary source image.
Carver was a prolific and early practitioner of the product-development aspect of what today is known as "food science"—the application of technology to all phases of food production. Carver saw the peanut, the sweet potato, soybeans, and the other crops which he used in new products not simply as food items to be harvested, cooked, and eaten whole—though he did develop scores of recipes for eating peanuts in relatively unprocessed forms—but as sources of industrial raw material. Some of the products he sought to derive from these raw materials might be edible, such as peanut oil, but many had nothing to do with food: plastic, dye, ink, and glue.
Today a number of crops are processed in just this way, including the peanut and the soybean. Whether or not Carver himself ever produced a workable ink from peanuts, for example, there is no doubt that a growing percentage of the printer's-ink market today is being captured by soy-based inks, which are nontoxic and less allergenic than petroleum-based inks. Soybeans are also used in plastic, soap, cosmetics, and biodiesel fuel, among other applications. Peanuts are used in varnish, paint, furniture polish, insecticide, nitroglycerin, soap, cosmetics, plastic, rayon, paper, glue, and more.
Complex food processing and the use of oils, sugars, and other products obtained from corn, peanuts, soybeans, and other plants make possible the contents of the modern supermarket, especially the shelves of highly processed snack foods, dessert foods, and prepared foods that constitute a large part of the typical person's diet in the United States and some other industrialized countries. This is not always a good thing: many of the highly processed foods in supermarkets contain hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been associated with heart disease.
Mackintosh, Barry. "George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on a Much-Loved Myth." American Heritage, vol. 28, No. 5, August 1977. Available at 〈http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1977/5/1977_5_66.shtml〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).
"The Legacy of George Washington Carver: Inspiring Students to Become Their Best." Iowa State University. 〈http://www.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/gwc/home.html〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).