Biography: George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver discovered three hundred uses for peanuts.

George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver. Mary Bellis

It is rare to find a man of the caliber of George Washington Carver. A man who would decline an invitation to work for a salary of more than $100,000 a year to continue his research on behalf of his countrymen. By doing so, the agricultural chemist discovered 300 uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes.

His work provided a much needed boost to southern farmers who benefited economically from his recipes and improvements to 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.

Early Life and Education

Carver was born in 1864 near Diamond Grove, Missouri, on the farm of Moses Carver. He was born into difficult and changing times near the end of the Civil War. The infant Carver and his mother were kidnapped by Confederate night-raiders and possibly sent away to Arkansas. Moses found and reclaimed Carver after the war but his mother had disappeared forever. The identity of Carver's father remains unknown, although he believed his father was a slave from a neighboring farm. Moses and his wife reared Carver and his brother as their own children. It was on the Moses' farm that Carver first fell in love with nature and collected in earnest all manner of rocks and plants, earning him the nickname 'The Plant Doctor.'

He began his formal education at the age of 12, which required him to leave the home of his adopted parents. Schools were segregated by race at that time and schools for black students weren't available near Carver's home. He moved to Newton County in southwest Missouri, where he worked as a farm hand and studied in a one-room schoolhouse. He went on to attend Minneapolis High School in Kansas. College entrance was also a struggle because of racial barriers. At the age of 30, Carver gained acceptance to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he was the first black student.

Carver studied piano and art but the college did not offer science classes. Intent on a science career, he later transferred to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in 1891, where he gained a bachelor of science degree in 1894 and a master of science degree in bacterial botany and agriculture in 1897. Carver became a member of the faculty of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanics (the first black faculty member for Iowa College), where he taught classes about soil conservation and chemurgy.

The Tuskegee Institute

In 1897, Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes, convinced Carver to come south and serve as the school's director of agriculture, where he remained until his death in 1943. At Tuskegee, Carver developed his crop rotation method, which revolutionized southern agriculture. He educated the farmers on methods to alternate the soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops such as peanuts, peas, soybeans, sweet potato and pecans.

America's economy was heavily dependent upon agriculture during this era, making Carver's achievements very significant. Decades of growing only cotton and tobacco had depleted the southern region of the United States. The economy of the farming south had also been devastated by years of civil war and by the fact that the cotton and tobacco plantations could no longer use slave labor. Carver convinced the southern farmers to follow his suggestions and helped the region to recover.

Carver also worked at developing industrial applications from agricultural crops. During World War I, he found a way to replace the textile dyes formerly imported from Europe. He produced dyes of 500 different shades and was responsible for the invention of a process for producing paints and stains from soybeans. For that, he received three separate patents.

Honors and Awards

Carver was widely recognized for his achievements and contributions. He was bestowed an honorary doctorate from Simpson College, named an honorary member of the Royal Society of Arts in London, England, and received the Spingarn Medal given every year by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1939, he received the Roosevelt medal for restoring southern agriculture and was honored with a national monument dedicated to his accomplishments.

Carver did not patent or profit from most of his products. He freely gave his discoveries to mankind. His work transformed the South from being a one-crop land of cotton to being multi-crop farmlands, with farmers having hundreds of profitable uses for their new crops. In 1940, Carver donated his life savings to the establishment of the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee for continuing research in agriculture.

"He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world." - Epitaph on the grave of George Washington Carver.