Carver, George Washington 1861(?)–1943
George Washington Carver 1861(?)–1943
Agricultural chemist, botanist, educator, and researcher
George Washington Carver was an agricultural chemist and botanist whose colorful life story and eccentric personality transformed him into a popular American folk hero to people of all races. Born into slavery, he spent his first 30 years wandering through three states and working at odd jobs to obtain a basic education. His lifelong effort thereafter to better the lives of poor Southern black farmers by finding commercial uses for the region’s agricultural products and natural resources—in particular the peanut, sweet potato, cowpea, soybean, and native clays from the soil—brought him international recognition as a humanitarian and chemical wizard. An accomplished artist and pianist as well, Carver was among the most famous black men in the United States during the early twentieth century.
Carver was born a slave on the plantation of Moses Carver near Diamond Grove, Missouri, sometime during the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. His father appears to have died in a log-rolling accident shortly after George’s birth. The Carver farm was raided several times throughout the war, and on one occasion, according to legend, bandits kidnapped George, who was then an infant, and his mother, Mary, and took them to Arkansas. Mary was never found, but a neighbor rescued young George and returned him to the Carver farm, accepting as payment a horse valued at $300.
Now orphaned, George and his older brother, Jim, were raised by Moses and Susan Carver. George was frail and sickly and his frequent bouts with croup and whooping cough temporarily stunted his growth and permanently injured his vocal chords, leaving him with a high-pitched voice throughout his life. While his healthy brother grew up working on the Carver farm, George spent much of his childhood wandering in the nearby woods and studying the plants. Here he formed the interests and values that determined his later life—love and understanding of nature, long morning walks in the woods spent thinking and observing, strong religious training, and a taste of racial prejudice.
The Carvers realized that George was an extremely intelligent and gifted child eager for an education. But since he was black, he was not allowed to attend the local school. In 1877 he left home to study in a school for blacks in nearby Neosho, getting his first exposure to a predominantly black environment. He roomed with a local black couple, paying his way by helping with the chores. Soon exhausting his
Born c. 1861, near Diamond Grove, MO; died January 5, 1943, in Tuskegee, AL; son of Mary (a slave on the farm of Moses Carver); father unknown, but believed to have died in an accident shortly after George’s birth. Education: Iowa State University, B.S., 1894, M.S., 1896. Religion: Presbyterian.
Worked odd jobs throughout Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa while pursuing a basic high school education, 1877-1890; Iowa State University, Ames, IA, assistant botanist and director of college greenhouse, 1894-1896; Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee, AL, head of agriculture department, 1896-1910, head of department of research, 1910-1943; founder of George Washington Carver Foundation and Carver Museum at Tuskegee Institute; researcher focusing on improving Southern agriculture through crop diversification and finding multiple uses for various crops; author of articles on agriculture.
Awards: Fellow of the British Royal Society for the Arts, 1916; Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1923; D.Sc. from Simpson College, 1928; Roosevelt Medal for distinguished service to science, 1939; D.Sc. from University of Rochester, 1941; Thomas A. Edison Foundation Award, 1942; inducted into Hall of Fame for Great Americans, 1973, and National Inventors Hall of Fame, 1990.
teacher’s limited knowledge, he hitched a ride to Fort Scott, Kansas, in the late 1870s with another black family, becoming part of the mass exodus of Southern blacks to the Great Plains during that decade in search of a better life.
Carver worked as a cook, launderer, and grocery clerk while continuing to pursue his education. Witnessing a brutal lynching in March of 1879, he was terrified. As quoted by Linda O. McMurry in George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol, more than sixty years after the incident he wrote: “As young as I was the horror haunted me and does even now.” He immediately left Fort Scott and moved to Olathe, Kansas, again working odd jobs while attending school. There he lived with another local black couple, Ben and Lucy Seymour, following them to Minneapolis, Kansas, the next year. Obtaining a bank loan, Carver opened a laundry business, joined the Seymours’ local Presbyterian Church, and entered a school with whites, finally completing his secondary education.
In 1884 he moved to Kansas City, working as a clerk in the Union Depot. Accepted by mail at a Presbyterian college in Highland, Kansas, he was refused admission when he arrived because of his race. Though humiliated, he stayed in Highland to work for the Beelers, a cordial and supportive white family. Carver followed one of their sons to western Kansas in 1886 and tried homesteading, building a 14-square-foot sod house. But at that time he seemed more interested in playing the piano and organ and in painting than farming.
Carver moved again in 1888 to Winterset, Iowa, where he worked at a hotel before opening another laundry. A local white couple he met at church, Dr. and Mrs. Milholland, persuaded him to enter Simpson College, a small Methodist school open to all, in nearby Indianola, Iowa. He enrolled in September of 1890 as a select preparatory student, one allowed to enter without an official high school degree. Carver was unique in more ways than one: besides being the only black student on campus, he was the only male studying art.
By all accounts his Simpson experience was enjoyable. Carver took in laundry to support himself, was accepted by his fellow students, and had many friends. But his art teacher, impressed by his talent with plants, strongly encouraged his transfer to the Iowa State College of Agriculture in Ames, which housed an agricultural experiment station considered one of the country’s leading centers of farming research. Three future U.S. secretaries of agriculture came from this university, including Professor James Wilson, who took Carver under his wing.
Again Carver was the only black on campus. He lived in an old office, ate in the basement, supported himself with menial jobs, and was active in the campus branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Soon he stood out for his talent as well. One of his paintings was among those chosen to represent Iowa at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The faculty, equally impressed by his ability to raise, cross-fertilize, and graft plants, persuaded him to stay on as a post-graduate after he graduated in 1894.
Carver was appointed to the faculty as an assistant botanist in charge of the college greenhouse. He continued his studies under Louis Pammel, an authority in mycology (fungi and other plant diseases), receiving a master’s degree in science in 1896.
The new graduate was in great demand. Iowa State wanted him to continue working there. Alcorn Agriculture & Mechanical College, a black school in Mississippi, was interested in his services. But when school principal Booker T. Washington, the most respected black educator in the country, asked Carver to establish an agricultural school and experiment station at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, he accepted. According to Barry Mackintosh in American Heritage, Carver responded: “Of course it has always been the one great ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of my people possible, and to this end I have been preparing my life for these many years, feeling as I do that this line of education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom for our people.”
Tuskegee was an entirely new world for Carver—an all-black, industrial trade school located in the segregated deep South. He went because he agreed with Washington’s efforts to improve the lives of the country’s black citizens through education, economic development, and conciliation rather than political agitation. He would devote the rest of his life to the institution and its goals.
Carver arrived at Tuskegee in the fall of 1896 and immediately ran into problems. Many of the faculty members resented him because he was a dark-skinned black from the North who was educated in white schools and earned a higher salary than they did. Carver was a trained research scientist, not a teacher, at a primarily industrial trade school. He had few pupils, for the simple reason that most black students viewed a college education as a way to escape from the farm. In addition, he proved to be a poor administrator and financial manager of the school’s two farms, barns, livestock, poultry, dairy, orchards, and beehives.
Washington and Carver often clashed. The realistic and pragmatic school principal expected practical results, while his idealistic, research-oriented professor preferred working at the school’s 10-acre experimental farm. In 1910 Carver was removed as head of the agriculture department and put in charge of a newly formed department of research. He gradually gave up teaching except for his Sunday evening Bible classes.
Carver found his true calling as head of the Tuskegee Experiment Station, working on research projects designed to help Southern agriculture in general and the poor black farmer, “the man farthest down,” in particular. Alabama agriculture was in a sorry state when he arrived. Many farmers were impoverished, and much of the state’s soil had been exhausted and eroded by extensive single-crop cotton cultivation. Carver set out to find a better way and to make Tuskegee a leading voice in Southern agricultural reform, as well as an important research, information, and educational center.
He encouraged local farmers to visit the school and to send in soil, water, crops, feed, fertilizers, and insects to his laboratory for analysis. Most of his findings and advice stressed hard work and the wise use of natural resources rather than expensive machinery or fertilizer that the area’s poor farmers could not afford. Realizing that his discoveries and those of other agricultural researchers nationwide would have little effect unless publicized, Carver brought Tuskegee to the countryside by creating the Agriculture Movable School, a wagon that traveled to local farms with exhibits and demonstrations.
He also attempted to reach a wide audience with the experiment station’s bulletins and brochures that he wrote and published from 1898 until his death. Rarely containing new ideas, Carver’s bulletins instead publicized findings by agricultural researchers throughout the country in simple, non-technical language aimed at farmers and their wives. His early bulletins stressed the need for planting crops other than cotton to restore the soil, the importance of crop rotation, strategies for managing an efficient and profitable farm, and ways to cure and keep meat during the hot southern summers. They also offered instructions on pickling, canning, and preserving foods and lessons on preparing balanced meals.
To replace cotton, the longtime staple of Southern agriculture, Carver experimented with sweet potatoes and cowpeas (also known as black-eyed peas), along with crops new to Alabama like soybeans and alfalfa, the soil-building qualities of which would revitalize cotton-exhausted soil. He publicized his results in several bulletins from 1903 to 1911, providing growing tips and listing uses ranging from livestock feed to recipes for human consumption. But none of these crops became as popular with farmers or caught the public’s fancy as his work with the ordinary peanut.
When Carver arrived in Tuskegee in 1896, the peanut was not even recognized as a crop. A few years later, Carver grew some Spanish peanuts at the experiment station. Recognizing its value in restoring nitrogen to depleted Southern soil, he mentioned the peanut in his 1905 bulletin, How to Build Up Worn Out Soils. Eleven years later another bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption, focused on the peanut’s high protein and nutritional value, using ideas and recipes published previously in other U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletins.
A revolution was underway in Southern agriculture, and Carver was right in the middle of it. Peanut production increased from 3.5 million bushels in 1889 to more than 40 million bushels in 1917. Following a post-World War I decline in production, peanuts became the South’s second cash crop after cotton by 1940.
After publicizing the peanut and encouraging Southern farmers to grow it, Carver turned his attention to finding new uses for the once-lowly goober. Learning of his work, the United Peanut Associations of America asked Carver to speak at their 1920 convention in Montgomery, Alabama. His address, “The Possibilities of the Peanut,” was noteworthy for two reasons: a black addressing a white organization in the segregated South and Carver’s knowledge and enthusiasm about the product.
The following year he testified before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, captivating congressional representatives with his showmanship and ideas for multiple derivatives from the crop including candy, ink, and ice cream flavoring. Mackintosh noted that Carver established his new celebrity nationwide, telling the lawmakers, “I have just begun with the peanut”. From then on he was known as the “Peanut Man.” After his death, the Carver Museum at Tuskegee credited him with developing 287 peanut byproducts, including food and beverages, paints or dyes, livestock feed, cosmetics, and medicinal preparations. Peanut butter, however, was not among his discoveries. His similar laboratory work with the sweet potato totaled 159 commodities like flour, molasses, vinegar, various dyes, and synthetic rubber.
But in reality, most of these by-products were more fanciful than practical and could be mass-produced more easily from other substances. Peanuts continued to be used almost entirely for peanut butter, peanut oil, and for baked goods instead of the plethora of products Carver concocted. For all his discoveries, he only held three patents: two for paint products and one for a cosmetic. None was commercially successful.
Carver’s laboratory methods were equally unorthodox and not in accord with standard scientific procedures. He usually worked alone, was uncommunicative with other researchers, and rarely wrote down his many formulas or left detailed records of his experiments. Instead, he claimed to work by divine revelation, receiving instructions from “Mr. Creator” in his laboratory.
Carver’s prestige began to rise after Booker T. Washington’s death in 1915. Given his growing celebrity status, he became Tuskegee’s unofficial spokesman and a popular speaker nationwide at black and white civic groups, colleges, churches, and state fairs. He often played the piano at fund-raising events for the school. Carver was named a fellow of the British Royal Society for the Arts in 1916 and received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1923 for advancing the black cause.
A fanciful 1932 article in American Magazine solely credited Carver with increasing peanut production and developing important new peanut products that transformed Southern agriculture. Reprinted in the Reader’s Digest in 1937, it boosted his soaring popularity as a scientific wizard. Backed by automobile manufacturer Henry Ford and inventor Thomas Edison, Carver became the unofficial spokesman of the chemurgy movement of the 1930s that combined chemistry and related sciences for the benefit of farmers. Continuing his work with peanuts, he encouraged the use of peanut oil as a massage to help in the recovery of polio victims.
With his soft-spoken manner, strong Christian beliefs, scientific reputation, seeming disregard for money, and accomodationist viewpoint toward the nation’s racial question, Carver became a national symbol for both races. Southern whites approved of his seeming acceptance of segregation and used his accomplishments as an example of how a talented black individual could excel in their separate but equal society. Blacks and liberal whites saw Carver as a positive role model and much-needed symbol of black success and intellectual achievement, a man who visited U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge and dined with Henry Ford.
Carver left his life savings of $60,000 to found the George Washington Carver Foundation—to provide opportunities for advanced study by blacks in botany, chemistry, and agronomy— and the Carver Museum, to preserve his scientific work and paintings at Tuskegee. The site of Moses Carver’s farm is now the George Washington Carver National Monument. A U.S. postage stamp was issued in the agricultural pioneer’s honor, and Congress has designated January 5, the day of his death, to pay tribute to him each year.
At his death from complications of anemia in 1943, Carver remained the most famous African-American of his era, world renowned as a scientific wizard. However, none of his hundreds of formulas for peanut, sweet potato, and other by-products became successful commercial products. Nor was he solely instrumental in diversifying Southern agriculture from cotton to peanuts and other crops. The great boom in Southern peanut production occurred prior to World War I and Carver’s bulletins promoting the crop.
Carver’s true importance in history lay elsewhere. For nearly 50 years he remained in the South, working to improve the lives of the region’s many poor farmers, black and white. Through his talents as an interpreter and promoter, he put the agricultural discoveries and technical writings of leading scientists in everyday language that ill-educated farmers could understand and use. And in an age of strict racial segregation, his importance as a role model and national symbol of black ability, education, and achievement cannot be undervalued.
Adair, Gene, George Washington Carver, Chelsea House, 1989.
George Washington Carver: The Man Who Overcame, Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Holt, Rackham, George Washington Carver: An American Biography, Doubleday, 1943.
Kremer, Gary R., George Washington Carver: In His Own Words, University of Missouri Press, 1987.
McMurry, Linda O., George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Moore, Eva, The Story of George Washington Carver, Scholastic Inc., 1990.
American Heritage, August 1977.
American Magazine, October 1932.
Ebony, July 1977.
Jet, January 29, 1990.
Journal of Black Studies, September 1988.
Journal of Southern History, November 1976.
Life, March 1937.
—James J. Podesta
Carver, George Washington
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver started his life as a slave and worked his way to becoming a respected and world-renowned agricultural chemist. He helped develop agricultural techniques used around the world.
George Washington Carver was born in Kansas Territory near Diamond Grove, Missouri, during the bloody struggle between free-soilers and slaveholders. His father, a slave on a nearby farm, was killed shortly before Carver was born. Carver himself became the kidnap victim of night riders while still a baby. With his mother and brother, James, he was held for ransom. Before they were rescued, his mother died. Moses Carver, a German farmer, ransomed (traded) the infant Carver for a $300 race-horse. Thus he was orphaned and left in the custody of a white guardian from early childhood.
Carver was a talented student, but even his talents could not overcome racism (feelings of racial superiority). He was not allowed to attend the local schools because of his color. Instead, Carver had responsibility for his own education. His first school was in Neosho, Kansas. Neosho had once been a Confederate capital. Now it had become the site of the Lincoln School for African American children, a school for black children some nine miles from Carver's home. Every day Carver walked there with his brother James. His first teacher was Stephen S. Frost, an African American. Carver and his brother faithfully went to school for several years. Finally James, tired of formal schooling, quit to become a house painter, but not George. He continued until he was seventeen. Then he went on to complete his high school work in Minneapolis, Kansas, and finally graduated in his mid-twenties. At the time Carver had wished to become an artist. His sketch of the rose Yucca gloriosa won him a first prize at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
An agricultural education
Carver applied to study at the Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts, but he was turned down when it was learned that he was of African heritage. He then applied to Simpson College at Indianola, Iowa, where he was the second African American to be admitted. Tuition was $12 a year, but it was hard to come by even this small amount. Carver worked as a cook at a hotel in Winterset, Iowa, to raise the money.
After attending Simpson College for three years, he once again applied for admission to Iowa State. He was admitted and was placed in charge of the greenhouse of the horticultural department while doing graduate work. Carver quickly won the respect and admiration of the faculty and student body. He earned his master's degree in agriculture in 1896, and, by the time he left, Carver was an expert at mycology (the study of fungi) and plant cross-fertilization.
A career begins
In April 1896 Carver received a unique offer from the African American educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Said Washington: "I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last from the position you now occupy you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place: work—hard, hard work, the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head."
Carver accepted the challenge. He arrived at the tiny railroad station at Chehaw, Alabama, on October 8, 1896. In a report to Washington he wrote: "8:00 to 9:00 a.m., Agricultural Chemistry; 9:20 to 10:00 a.m., the Foundation of Colors (for painters); 10:00 to 11:00 a.m., a class of farmers. Additional hours in the afternoon. In addition I must oversee and rather imperfectly supervise seven industrial classes, scattered here and there over the grounds. I must test all seeds, examine all fertilizers, based upon an examination of soils in different plots."
Through the years Carver gained a national, as well as an international, reputation. Chinese and Japanese farmers raised many unique problems for him. Questions were referred to him from Russia, India, Europe, and South America. He later had to turn down a request to journey to the Soviet Union, the country that once consisted of Russia and other smaller nations. In 1916 he was elected a member of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts in England, the world's oldest scientific organization. Later, in 1918, he went to the War Department in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate his findings on the sweet potato. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1923.
The personality of Carver
An early close friend of Carver was Henry A. Wallace; the pair knew each other for forty-seven years. Wallace said that Carver often took him on botanical (relating to plants) expeditions, and it was he who first introduced Wallace to the mysteries of plant fertilizers. Carver was a shy and modest bachelor, an unmarried man. An attack of whooping cough (a contagious disease that attacks the respiratory system) as a child had permanently caused him to have a high-pitched tenor voice. He considered it a high duty to attend classes and was seldom absent. In 1908 he returned to the West to visit his ninety-six-year-old guardian, Moses Carver, and to visit the grave of his brother, James, in Missouri.
A careful and modest scientist, Carver was not without a sense of humor. When one of his students, hoping to play a trick on him, showed him a bug with the wings of a fly and the body of a mosquito, Carver was quick to label it "a humbug."
Developments and world fame
Carver utilized the materials at hand. He was interested in crop rotation and soil conservation. From the clay soil of Alabama he extracted a full range of dyestuffs, including a brilliant blue. He created sixty products from the pecan. From the common sweet potato he developed a cereal coffee, a shoe polish, paste, oils—about one hundred products. From the peanut he came up with over 145 products. Carver suggested peanuts, pecans, and sweet potatoes replace cotton as money crops. He published all of his findings in a series of nearly fifty bulletins.
The testimony of Carver before the congressional House Ways and Means Committee in 1921 led to the passage of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Bill of 1922. Scheduled to speak a short ten minutes, he was granted several time extensions because of the intense interest in his presentation. At the lecture he appeared in a greenish-blue suit many seasons old, having refused to invest in a new suit and announced, "They want to hear what I have to say; they will not be interested in how I look."
In 1935 Carver was chosen to work with the Bureau of Plant Industry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He received the Theodore Roosevelt Medal in 1939 for distinguished achievement in science. During his lifetime Carver had made many friends. Automobile manufacturer Henry Ford (1863–1947) was his frequent host. Carver was also a treasured friend of inventor Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931). It was Edison who offered to make him independent with his own laboratories and an annual stipend (fixed payment) of $50 thousand. Other famous friends included horticulturist Luther Burbank (1849–1926), industrialist Harvey Firestone (1868–1938), and naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921). He was also a friend of three presidents: Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945).
Carver had earned the salary of $125 a month from the beginning until the end of his service at Tuskegee Institute, which spanned forty-six years. He might have had much more. In 1940 he gave his life savings, $33 thousand, to establish the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee Institute to continue research in agriculture and chemistry. He later left his entire estate to the foundation, a total of about $60 thousand. He died on January 5, 1943.
At the dedication of a building in his honor at Simpson College, Ralph Bunche (1904–1971), a Nobel Prize winner, pronounced Carver to be "the least imposing celebrity the world has ever known." Carver's birthplace was made a national monument on July 14, 1953.
For More Information
Gray, James Marion. George Washington Carver. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Holt, Rackham. George Washington Carver: An American Biography. Rev. ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
McKissack, Pat, and Fredrick McKissack. George Washington Carver: The Peanut Scientist. Rev. ed. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2002.
Moore, Eva. The Story of George Washington Carver. New York: Scholastic, 1995.
Carver, George Washington
CARVER, GEORGE WASHINGTON
Agricultural chemist George Washington Carver (1861?–1943) devoted his life to developing industrial applications for farm products. His research developed hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and pecans. Although many of these products could be mass-produced more successfully from other materials and none were a commercial success, Carver's work helped liberate the economy of the South from an excessive dependence on cotton.
Carver was born during the American Civil War (1861–1865) near Diamond Grove, Missouri, the son of a slave woman. He was only an infant when he and his mother were sent to Arkansas where slaveholding was still legal. After the war, the young boy, now an orphan and a frail, sickly child, was returned to his former master's plantation where he was nursed back to health. He spent much of his boyhood wandering through the nearby woods and studying the plants he found there.
Carver's ability to have himself educated was remarkable when one considers the bias that African Americans faced in the early years after the Civil War. Although he was a gifted child, he had to spend his early youth working at a succession of menial jobs, and he did not complete high school until he was in his twenties. Although he was accepted by a Presbyterian college in Kansas, he was refused admission upon arrival because of his race. In 1890, Carver became the first black student admitted to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Impressed by the young man's talent with plants, an art teacher at Simpson advised Carver to transfer to the Iowa State College of Agriculture, where he received a degree in agricultural science in 1894. Two years later he earned a Master's degree in science. He then became a member of the faculty in charge of the school's bacterial laboratory work in the systematic botany department.
In 1896 Carver received an invitation from Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the most respected black educator in the country, to establish an agricultural school and experiment station at Tuskegee Institute. Carver's acceptance began for him a special relationship with Tuskegee. In 1940 he used his life savings to endow there the Carver Research Foundation, which would carry on his work in agricultural research. Carver remained on the faculty at Tuskegee until his death in 1943.
Carver found his true calling in working on projects designed to help Southern agriculture. When he arrived in Alabama much of the state's soil had been exhausted and eroded by extensive single-crop cotton cultivation. To replace cotton, the longtime staple of Southern agriculture, Carver experimented with sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. He also introduced crops new to Alabama like soybeans and alfalfa. None of these crops became as popular with farmers or caught the public's fancy as much as the peanut. Recognizing its value in restoring nitrogen to depleted soil, Carver encouraged farmers to grow the lowly "goober." Carver research on the peanut was at the forefront of a revolution underway in Southern agriculture. Peanut production increased from 3.5 million bushels in 1889 to more than 40 million bushels in 1917. By 1940 peanuts became the South's second cash crop (after cotton). Ultimately, his research resulted in 325 products derived from peanuts, 75 products from pecans, and 108 applications for sweet potatoes.
Carver's work also reflected his commitment to poor, African-American farmers. Initially Carver advised them to work hard and use natural resources wisely rather than invest in expensive machinery or fertilizers they could not afford. Yet, his research into the commercial uses for the South's agricultural products and natural resources enabled them to better their lives.
His success also brought him an national and international recognition. In 1923 he received the Spingarn Medal, awarded each year by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the person who made the greatest contribution to the advancement of his or her race. In 1928, he received an honorary doctorate from Simpson College and was made a member of England's Royal Society of Arts. U.S. presidents visited him. Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948) and Henry Ford (1863–1947) were friends of Carver. Foreign leaders sought his advice. In 1943 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–1945) dedicated the first national monument honoring an African American to Carver's memory.
Both during and after his lifetime Carver captured a special place in folk history. According to Linda McMurray in her biography, George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol, "The romance of his life story and the eccentricities of his personality led to his metamorphosis into a kind of folk saint. . . [and] he was readily appropriated by many diverse groups as a symbol of myriad causes." Segregationists approved of his apparent acceptance of their "separate but equal" society and used his accomplishments as an example of how a talented black individual could excel under those conditions. Many African Americans and others saw Carver as a needed example of black success and intellectual achievement. Americans of all races struggling through the Great Depression saw in his career the realization that hard work and talent could prevail no matter how daunting the odds.
See also: Agriculture Industry
Carwell, Hattie. Blacks in Science: Astrophysicist to Zoologist. Hicksville, N.Y.: Exposition Press, 1977.
Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers in Science and Invention. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970.
Holt, Rackham. George Washington Carver, An American Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963.
"George Washington Carver, Jr.: Chemurgist?" [cited February 15, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @ www.lib.lsu.edu/lib/chem/display/carver.html
[carver's] research developed hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans. . . . [and] his work helped liberate the economy of the south from an excessive dependence on cotton.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver (1864-1943) started his life as a slave and ended it as a respected and world-renowned agricultural chemist.
Born in Kansas Territory near Diamond Grove, Mo., during the bloody struggle between free-soilers and slaveholders, George Washington Carver became the kidnap victim of night riders. With his mother and brother, James, he was held for ransom; but before they could be rescued the mother died. Merely a babe in arms, Carver was ransomed for a $300 racehorse by Moses Carver, a German farmer. Thus he was orphaned and left in the custody of a white guardian from early childhood.
Carver had responsibility for his own education. His first school was in Neosho, lowa, some 9 miles from his home. Neosho had once been a Confederate capital; by now it had become the site of the Lincoln School for African American children. With James he walked there every day. His first teacher was an African American, Stephen S. Frost. He and his brother went faithfully to school for several years. Finally James tired of formal schooling and quit to become a house painter, but not George. He continued until he was 17. Then he went on to complete his high school work in Minneapolis, Kans.
Carver really wished to become an artist. His sketch of the rose Yucca gloriosa won him a first prize at the World's Columbian Exposition (1893).
Carver applied to study at the lowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts but was turned down when it was learned that he was of African heritage. He then applied to Simpson College at Indianola, lowa, where he was the second African American to be admitted. Tuition was $12 a year, but even this small amount was hard to come by. Carver raised the money by working as a cook at a hotel in Winterset, lowa.
After 3 years' attendance at Simpson College, he once again applied for admission to lowa State. He was admitted and was placed in charge of the greenhouse of the horticultural department while doing graduate work. He earned his master's degree in agriculture in 1896.
In April 1896 Carver received a unique offer from the African American educator Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Said Dr. Washington: "I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last from the position you now occupy you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place: work—hard, hard work, the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head."
Carver accepted the challenge. He arrived at the tiny railroad station at Chehaw, Ala., on Oct. 8, 1896. In a report to Dr. Washington he wrote: "8:00 to 9:00 A.M., Agricultural Chemistry; 9:20 to 10:00 A.M., the Foundation of Colors (for painters); 10:00 to 11:00 A.M., a class of farmers. Additional hours in the afternoon. In addition I must oversee and rather imperfectly supervise seven industrial classes, scattered here and there over the grounds. I must test all seeds, examine all fertilizers, based upon an examination of soils in different plots."
Through the years Carver was gaining national and international stature. Chinese and Japanese farmers raised many unique problems for him. Questions were referred to him from Russia, India, Europe, South America. He later had to turn down a request to journey to the Soviet Union. In 1916 he was elected a member of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts in England; he went to Washington to the War Department to demonstrate his findings on the sweet potato in 1918. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP in 1923.
An early close friend of Carver was Henry A. Wallace; the pair knew each other for 47 years. Wallace said that Carver often took him on botanical expeditions, and it was he who first introduced Wallace to the mysteries of plant fertilizers. Carver was a shy and modest bachelor. An attack of whooping cough as a child had permanently caused him to have a high-pitched tenor voice. He considered it a high duty to attend classes and was seldom absent. In 1908 he returned to the West to visit his 96-year-old guardian, Moses Carver, and to visit the grave of his brother, James, in Missouri.
A careful and modest scientist, Carver was not without a sense of humor. When one of his students, hoping to play a trick on him, showed him a bug with wings of a fly and body of a mosquito, Carver was quick to label it "a humbug."
Carver utilized the materials at hand. He was interested in crop rotation and soil conservation. From the clay soil of Alabama he extracted a full range of dyestuffs, including a brilliant blue. He created 60 products from the pecan. From the common sweet potato he extracted a cereal coffee, a shoe polish, paste, oils—about 100 products. From the peanut he developed over 145 products. Carver suggested peanuts, pecans, and sweet potatoes replace cotton as money crops. He published all of his findings in a series of nearly 50 bulletins.
The testimony of Carver before the congressional House Ways and Means Committee in 1921 led to the passage of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Bill of 1922. Scheduled to speak a scant 10 minutes, he was granted several time extensions because of the intense interest in his presentation. (He appeared in a greenish-blue suit many seasons old, having refused to invest in a new suit: "They want to hear what I have to say; they will not be interested in how I look.")
In 1935 Carver was chosen to collaborate with the Bureau of Plant Industry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He received the Theodore Roosevelt Medal in 1939 for distinguished achievement in science. During his lifetime Carver had made many friends. Henry Ford was his frequent host. Carver was a treasured friend of Thomas A. Edison. It was Edison who offered to make him independent with his own laboratories and an annual stipend of $50,000. Other intimates of his were Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. He was also a friend of three presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Dr. Carver had earned the salary of $125 a month from the beginning until the end of his service at Tuskegee. He might have had much more. In 1940 he gave his life-savings, $33,000, to establish the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee Institute to perpetuate research in agriculture and chemistry. He later bequeathed his entire estate to the foundation, making a total of about $60,000. He died on Jan. 5, 1943.
At the dedication of a building in his honor at Simpson College, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Nobel Prize winner, pronounced Dr. Carver to be "the least imposing celebrity the world has ever known." Dr. Carver's birthplace was made a national monument on July 14, 1953.
Of the many studies of Carver the best is Rackham Holt, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (1943). Also useful is Shirley Graham and George D. Lipscomb, Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist (1944). □
Carver, George Washington
Carver, George Washington
his birth was never recorded, although later in life Carver gave the year as 1864. His father died in an accident prior to or shortly after Carver's birth. His mother Mary was kidnapped with her infant son by slave raiders shortly after his birth. Although Carver was eventually returned to Moses and Susan Carver in exchange for a horse, his mother was never heard from again.
Carver was not a strong child and this prevented him from working the fields. Instead, he helped with household chores and gardening. It is likely that these duties and the hours spent exploring the woods surrounding his home induced his keen interest in plants and led to his life of study and scholarly pursuits. He gathered and cared for a wide variety of plants from throughout the region and frequently helped friends and neighbors treat ailing plants.
As an adolescent, Carver was sent to Neosho, Missouri, where he worked as a farmhand and studied in a one-room schoolhouse. From there, he moved to Kansas and attended Minneapolis High School. In 1885, as a young adult, Carver was accepted to Highland University in Kansas on scholarship. However, when he showed up the first day of class, the president of the university is said to have denied him entrance because of his race. Other colleges rejected him for the same reason, but that did not stop Carver from attempting to seek a higher education.
In 1890 Carver entered Simpson College, a Methodist school in Indianola, Iowa, to study piano and art. While he excelled at both, his art instructor Etta Budd recognized his horticultural talent. She persuaded him to pursue a more pragmatic career in scientific agriculture. In 1891 Carver transferred to the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which is now Iowa State University. Carver was the first African-American student accepted by the college.
As an undergraduate student, Carver was a leader. He became involved in all facets of university life; his poetry was published in the student newspaper and his paintings exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It was for his excellence as a botanist, however, that he earned his B.S. in agriculture in 1894. Joseph Budd (Etta's father and a professor of horticulture) and Louis Pammel (a botany professor) encouraged Carver to stay on as a graduate student. His proficiency in plant breeding soon led to his appointment as a member of the Iowa State faculty. Over the next two years, Carver's extensive work in plant pathology and mycology (the branch of botany that studies fungi) prompted him to publish several articles, and, as a consequence, he gained national respect as a scientist. In 1896 he earned his M.S. in agriculture from Iowa State and was invited by Booker T. Washington to join Alabama's Tuskegee Institute.
At Tuskegee, Carver found his intellectual home. As the director of its Agricultural Experiment Station, he was given a barren 21-acre plot to work on. Carver and his students conducted experiments on crops requiring low input and capable of fixing nitrogen, such as the cowpea and the peanut. The resulting soil enrichment substantially increased crop production and became an accepted agricultural practice for both cotton and tobacco growers.
It was working with the surplus of peanuts that this practice produced that led to Carver's reputation as a "chemurgist," a chemist interested in the industrial applications of organic raw materials and particularly farm products. His research resulted in the creation of over 325 different products from peanuts, ranging from buttermilk to shaving cream to synthetic rubber. He generated 108 products from the sweet potato and invented countless other products from a wide variety of agricultural plants—everything from pecans to soybeans. Indeed, Carver pursued biomass conversion with a zeal that is only now being matched as contemporary society searches for alternatives to fossil fuel consumption.
Toward the end of his life, Carver received numerous accolades and honors; a feature film about his life was even produced in 1938. He died on January 5, 1943. In 1994 Iowa State posthumously awarded Carver the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. This was a fitting tribute to a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge.
see also Agricultural Chemistry.
Todd W. Whitcombe
Kremer, Gary S., ed. (1987). George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Carver, George Washington
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver was a talented man who survived slavery and the loss of both parents at an early age. He spent his life trying to improve agricultural methods so that farmers could rise above poverty. He is perhaps most famous for inventing many uses for the peanut.
Born to slaves
George Washington Carver was born in a small cabin in Diamond, Missouri , shortly before the end of the American Civil War (1861–65). His mother was a slave owned by Moses and Susan Carver (slaves took the last names of their owners). His father, also a slave, was killed in an accident shortly after his son's birth. After Carver's mother was kidnapped, he and his brother were raised by the Carvers. Although they struggled financially, the Carvers were loving parents to the orphaned boys. Carver spent much of his childhood outdoors, where he explored his natural surroundings. He built a pond and even grew a plant nursery in the woods. His hobby earned him the nickname “plant doctor.”
At the age of ten, Carver left his family to attend a school that allowed African American students. He took care of himself by working odd jobs and living with different families. In 1885, when he was twenty years old, he graduated from high school and was accepted at Highland
Down but not out
The discrimination that kept Carver out of Highland College did not discourage him from furthering his education. In 1890, he began attending Simpson College in Iowa , where he hoped to study painting. His art teacher recognized Carver's talent, but knew he would find it difficult to be accepted as an artist. She suggested a career in botany (the study of plants) and helped him get admitted to the Iowa Agricultural College in Ames.
It proved to be a wise move for Carver. He got involved in a variety of clubs and activities at the college, and he was an excellent student whose natural talent in agriculture made him popular among his peers and professors. Carver received his bachelor's degree and stayed on for graduate work. He received his master's degree in 1896.
After earning his master's degree, Carver received a surprise invitation from respected educator Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the African American founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee had been established in the 1880s as an industrial and agricultural school for African American students. It was the first of its kind and a great success. Carver was asked to become its director of agriculture, and he accepted.
In addition to being head of the department, Carver worked with local farmers. The region was devastatingly poor, and Carver helped by writing instructional pamphlets on farming. He also established a mobile school that crossed the South, visiting farmers and teaching them better agricultural methods. At first, when it began in 1906, the school was nothing more than a mule-drawn cart, but before long, the cart was replaced by a truck carrying farming tools and exhibits.
In 1910, Carver became the director of a new research department, and his title became “consulting chemist.” Carver enjoyed the research that went along with this new title, but he lacked a proper laboratory and equipment. Most of the time, he had to make his own equipment out of old bottles, wire, and other materials at hand.
The field of scientific agriculture—the exploration of alternative farming methods—was new at the time. In his attempts to improve the quality of life for local farmers, Carver analyzed water and soil, experimented with paints made of clay, and searched for new, inexpensive foods to supplement their diets. The most versatile resource Carver found was the peanut. He used it to restore nitrogen to the depleted soil, and from it he made soap, shampoo, metal polish, even adhesives. The one thing he did not make from peanuts was peanut butter.
Honored for lifetime achievements
Carver became an advocate of “chemurgy,” the concept of putting chemistry to work in industry for farmers. He met industrialist and automobile pioneer Henry Ford (1863–1947) in 1937, and the two formed an immediate and lifelong friendship. In 1940, Carver founded the Carver Museum to continue and preserve his work, and at its opening Ford dedicated the museum.
Shortly after the opening of the museum, Carver's health began to fail. Carver died of injuries from falling down a flight of stairs, and he was buried next to Booker T. Washington. On his headstone was carved, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
Carver received numerous awards and honors during his lifetime. After his death in 1943, he was twice featured on commemorative postage stamps. He was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1977 and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990. Carver's birthplace in southwestern Missouri is now a national monument—the first national birthplace monument honoring a non-president.
Carver, George Washington
Carver, George Washington
George Washington Carver was born in 1865, near the end of the Civil War (1861-65). His mother was a slave on the Moses and Susan Carver farm close to Diamond Grove, Missouri. Carver was orphaned while still in his infancy and was raised by the Carvers. He received a practical education working on the farm and in 1877 was sent to attend a school for African-American children in the nearby town of Neosho. From Neosho, Carver traveled through several states in pursuit of a basic education. He took odd jobs to support himself and lived with families he met along the way.
In 1890 Carver began a study of art at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. The following year he left Simpson to pursue studies in agriculture at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames. He enrolled in 1891 as the first African-American student at Iowa State. Carver maintained an excellent academic record and was noted for his skill in plant hybridization using techniques of cross-fertilization and grafting. An appointment as assistant botanist allowed him to continue with graduate studies while teaching and conducting greenhouse studies.
In 1896 American educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) extended an invitation to Carver to head the agriculture department at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. Carver accepted the invitation and remained at Tuskegee until his death forty-seven years later in 1943. During his tenure at Tuskegee he taught classes, directed the Agricultural Experiment Station, managed the school's farms, served on various councils and committees, and directed a research department.
Carver's work focused on projects that held potential for improving the lives of poor southern farmers. Years of repeated planting of a single crop, cotton, and uncontrolled erosion had depleted southern soils. He advocated the wise use of natural resources, sustainable methods of agriculture, soil enrichment, and crop diversification.
One of Carver's first efforts was to find methods within reach of the farmer with limited technical and financial means for enriching the soils. He conducted soil analysis to determine what was needed to make soils more productive. Then Carver proceeded to set up scientific experiments to determine organic methods for building up the soil. He also tried planting and cultivating various plants and plant varieties so he could identify ones that could be successfully grown. Sweet potatoes, peanuts, and cowpeas were considered the most promising. These plants were favored because they could help enrich the soil, they could offer good nutritional value to animals and humans, they were easily preserved and stored, and they could be used as raw material for the production of useful products. Carver developed hundreds of products from these resources. He recognized that processing raw materials was a means of adding value to and increasing the demand for the agricultural products of the South.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, shortages of certain goods were felt. This caused Carver's substitutes and alternatives to gain attention. Sweet potato products and peanut milk were especially of interest. In 1921 Carver appeared before a congressional committee to testify on the importance of protecting the U.S. peanut industry by establishing a tariff on imported peanuts, and a tariff was established. This event brought Carver national and international recognition as a scientist. Carver spent the remainder of his life conducting agricultural research and sharing his knowledge with individuals in the South and throughout the world.
see also Agriculture, Organic; Breeder; Breeding; Economic Importance of Plants; Fabaceae.
Janet M. Pine
Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver
American Chemist and Agronomist
George Washington Carver is credited with the development of innovative crop-rotation methods that preserved soils and allowed sustainable levels of increased agricultural productivity. During a long and productive scientific and teaching career, Carver discovered hundreds of uses for crops and his work revitalized a Southern economy left barren and depressed by war and land mismanagement.
Carver was born a slave in Missouri. A frail and sickly child, he was orphaned during the Civil War, and nursed back to health by his former owners, Moses and Susan Carver. Young George lived with the Carvers until he was 10 or 12, when he left to pursue an education at a segregated school nearby. He lived with a black family, doing chores for room and board. Carver was well into his twenties before he was able to move from a one-room schoolhouse to become an outstanding student at Minneapolis High School in Kansas. Though subsequently denied admission to the school of his choice because of his race, Carver eventually undertook his college studies at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
Carver set out to be a scientist and a few years into his studies he transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where he earned his baccalaureate in 1894 and his master's degree in 1897. Shortly thereafter, Booker T. Washington, founder of what was then known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes (now Tuskegee University) located in Tuskegee, Alabama, asked Carver to accept a post as the school's director of agricultural studies.
Carver accepted and moved to Tuskegee, where he taught and spent research time developing improved crop-rotation methods. Carver's training in chemistry allowed him to spot a glaring deficiency in traditional uses of soils. He measured dramatic depletions of critical minerals and nutrients in fields planted with the same crops season after season. Carver designed a plan whereby nitrate producing crops, such as such as peanuts and peas, would be alternated annually with cotton. Although cotton was the most important cash crop for Southern farmers, repeated planting left fields depleted and unable to sustain or produce profitable crops. When farmers followed Carver's advice—alternating annual crops of cotton and peanuts—the soil nutrient balances remained within acceptable levels. In addition, healthy soils reduced erosion and water contamination by runoff. In a South sorely pressed by the boll weevil, Carver's planting techniques actually proved to be an effective means of pest control.
Unfortunately, farmers were initially unable to find profitable uses for their off-year crops and many had to return to planting cotton, despite the long-term risks. In response, Carver rescued his soil rotation plan by find more than 300 economic uses for the peanut and more than 100 uses for the sweet potato. The resulting availability of two cash crops offered new hope for Southern farmers who had suffered one deprivation after another since the Civil War.
During his lifetime, Carver garnered great honor and became an internationally respected scientist. Carver maintained a simple lifestyle and remained dedicated to his work at Tuskegee. He repeatedly turned away offers and opportunities to enrich himself. Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) reportedly offered Carver a salary greater than that earned by the president if Carver would come to work with Edison.
Carver was awarded an honorary doctorate and was made a member of the British Royal Society of Arts. In 1923 he received the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the person who has made the greatest contribution to the advancement of his race.
Despite his simple outlook on life, Carver was sought out by some of the most influential leaders in the world. At various times Carver's views were sought by such disparate figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Mohandas Gandhi. As per his wishes, Carver's life savings, following his death, went toward the establishment of a research institute for agriculture at Tuskegee. Carver was buried on the Tuskegee campus beside Booker T. Washington.
BRENDA WILMOTH LERNER