Dr. George Washington Carver (c. 1864-5 - January 5, 1943) was
an African-American botanist who worked in agricultural extension in
the southern United States. He taught former slaves farming techniques
for self-sufficiency and is known for suggesting hundreds of uses for
the peanut and other plants to increase the profitability of farming.
Carver was born into slavery in Newton county, Marion Township, Missouri,
in an area now known as Diamond, Missouri. The exact date of birth
is unknown due to the haphazard record keeping by slave owners but "it
seems likely that he was born in the spring of 1865". His
owner, Moses Carver, was a German immigrant who also owned his mother,
Mary, and brother. The identity of Carver's father is unknown but
he believed his father was from a neighboring farm and died - shortly
after Carver's birth - in a log-hauling accident.
When George was an infant, he and his mother were kidnapped by Confederate
night raiders who hoped to sell them elsewhere, a common practice.
Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them. Carver's mother had already
been sold but Carver, near death, was returned to Moses by Bentley.
Moses Carver rewarded him with his best "filly". This episode
caused a bout of respiratory disease that left him with a permanently
weakened constitution. Because of this, he was unable to work as a
hand and spent his time wandering the fields, drawn to the varieties
of wild plants. He became so knowledgeable that he was known by Moses
Carvers' neighbors as "the plant doctor".
One day he was called to a neighbor's house to help with a plant in
need. When he had fixed the problem, he was told to go into the kitchen
to collect his reward. When he entered the kitchen, he saw no one.
He did, however, see something that changed his life: beautiful paintings
of flowers on the walls of the room. From that moment on, he knew that
he was going to be an artist as well as a botanist.
After slavery was abolished, Moses and his wife raised George and
his brother as their own. They encouraged Carver to continue his intellectual
pursuits. When George was 12, he decided to strike out on his own,
much to the Carvers' distress. He had set out to get an education,
and his first destination was a school in a different town. To his
dismay, when he reached the town, the school had been closed for the
night. As he had nowhere to stay, he slept in a nearby barn. By his
own account, the next morning he met a kindly woman from whom he wished
to rent a room. When he identified himself "Carver's George" as
he had done his whole life, she replied that from now on, his name
was "George Carver". They then struck a deal: he would be
paid money for cooking for the family and he could go to school. He
lived under the steps of the family porch until his money was sufficient
to buy a shack. He was eventually forced to leave town because of a
lynching of a black person. He promptly left, but still carried scars
from this incident for the rest of his life.
He earned his high school diploma at Minneapolis High School in Kansas.
In 1887, he was accepted to Simpson College in Indianola. He excelled
in art and music, but art instructor Etta May Budd, whose father, Joseph
Budd, was head of the Iowa State College Department of Horticulture,
recognized Carver's horticultural talents. Realizing the difficulties
facing an African-American artist, she convinced him to pursue a more
pragmatic career in scientific agriculture and, in 1891, he became
the first African-American to enroll at Iowa State College of Agriculture
and Mechanic Arts, which today is Iowa State University.
In order to avoid confusion with another George Carver in his classes,
he began to use the name George Washington Carver. Through quiet determination
and perseverance, Carver soon became involved in all facets of campus
life. He was a leader in the YMCA and the debate club. He worked in
the dining rooms and as a trainer for the athletic teams. He was captain,
the highest student rank, of the campus military regiment. His poetry
was published in the student newspaper and two of his paintings were
exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
Carver's interests in music and art remained strong, but it was his
excellence in botany and horticulture that prompted professors Joseph
Budd and Louis Pammel to encourage him to stay on as a graduate student
after he completed his bachelor's degree in 1894. Because of his proficiency
in plant breeding, Carver was appointed to the faculty, becoming ISU's
first African-American faculty member.
Over the next two years, as assistant botanist for the College Experiment
Station, Carver quickly developed scientific skills in plant pathology
and mycology, the branch of botany that deals with fungi. He published
several articles on his work and gained national respect. He completed
his master's degree in 1896.
In 1896, he was recruited to Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute
(today: Tuskegee University) by Booker T. Washington in Tuskegee, Alabama.
He remained there for 47 years until his death in 1943.
Taking an interest in the plight of poor Southern farmers working
with soil depleted by repeated crops of cotton, Carver advocated employing
the nitrogen cycle by alternating cotton crops with legume planting,
such as peanuts, to restore nitrogen to the soil. Thus, the cotton
crop was improved and new cash crops added. He developed an agricultural
extension system in Alabama to train farmers in raising these crops
and an industrial research laboratory to develop uses for them.
In order to make these new crops profitable, Carver devised numerous
uses, several of which were unique, for the new crops, including more
than 300 uses for the peanut ranging from glue to printer's ink; however,
contrary to popular belief, this list does not include peanut butter.
He made similar investigations into uses for plants such as sweet potatoes
Until 1915, Carver was not widely known for his agricultural research.
However he became one of the best-known African Americans of his era
following the funeral of Booker T. Washington when he was praised by
Theodore Roosevelt. Following that he was approached by a peanut growers'
association to serve as a spokesperson. He represented the peanut growers
at a sitting of the United States Congress to explain his ideas. They
said that he had only ten minutes, as he was an African American. Carver
started his report, and by the time those ten minutes were up, Carver
had intrigued the men so much that the head congressman said, "Go
on, brother. Your time is unlimited".
Upon returning home one day, Carver took a bad fall down a flight of
stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who took him to a hospital.
Carver died January 5, 1943 at the age of 79 from complications (anemia)
resulting from this fall.