George Washington Carver (January 1864 – January 5, 1943), was an American scientist, botanist, educator and inventor. The day and year of his birth are unknown; he is believed to have been born before slavery was abolished in Missouri in January 1864.
Much of Carver's fame is based on his research into and promotion of alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of other products to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes that used peanuts.
He also created or disseminated about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin.
In the Reconstruction South, an agricultural monoculture of cotton depleted the soil, and in the early 20th century the boll weevil destroyed much of the cotton crop. Carver's work on peanuts was intended to provide an alternative crop.
In addition to his work on agricultural extension education for purposes of advocacy of sustainable agriculture and appreciation of plants and nature, Carver's important accomplishments also included improvement of racial relations, mentoring children, poetry, painting, and religion. He served as an example of the importance of hard work, a positive attitude, and a good education. His humility, humanitarianism, good nature, frugality, and rejection of economic materialism also have been admired widely.
One of his most important roles was in undermining, through the fame of his achievements and many talents, the widespread stereotype of the time that the black race was intellectually inferior to the white race. In 1941, Time magazine dubbed him a "Black Leonardo", a reference to the Renaissance Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci. To commemorate his life and inventions, George Washington Carver Recognition Day is celebrated on January 5, the anniversary of Carver's death.
Carver was born in Diamond Grove, Newton County, Marion Township, near Crystal Place, now known as Diamond, Missouri, on or around July 12, 1865. His slave owner, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant who had purchased George's mother, Mary, and father, Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for seven hundred dollars. Carver had 10 sisters and a brother, all of whom died prematurely.
When George was only a week old, George, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas.
George's brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. They sold the slaves in Kentucky, a common practice. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but only George was found. Moses negotiated with the raiders and swapped a racehorse for the infant's return, and rewarded Bentley.
After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife, Susan, raised George and his older brother, James, as their own children. They encouraged George Carver to continue his intellectual pursuits, and "Aunt Susan" taught him the basics of reading and writing.
Since black people were not allowed at the school in Diamond Grove, and he had received news that there was a school for black people ten miles south in Neosho, he resolved to go there at once. 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 kind woman, Mariah Watkins, from whom he wished to rent a room. When he identified himself as "Carver's George," as he had done his whole life, she replied that from now on his name was "George Carver". George liked this lady very much, and her words, "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people", made a great impression on him.
At the age of thirteen, due to his desire to attend the academy there, he relocated to the home of another foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing the beating to death of a black man at the hands of a group of white men, George left Fort Scott. He subsequently attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
Over the next five years, he sent several letters to colleges and was finally accepted at Highland College in Highland, Kansas. He traveled to the college, but he was rejected when they discovered that he was an African American. In August 1886, Carver traveled by wagon with J. F. Beeler from Highland to Eden Township in Ness County, Kansas.
He homesteaded a claim near Beeler, where he maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. With no help from domestic animals he plowed 17 acres of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery. He also did odd jobs in town and worked as a ranch hand.
In early 1888, Carver obtained a $3000 loan at the Bank of Ness City, stating he wanted to further his education, and by June of that year he had left the area.
In 1890, Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver's talent for painting flowers and plants and convinced him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames. He transferred there in 1891, the first black student and later the first black faculty member. In order to avoid confusion with another George Carver in his classes, he began to use the name George Washington Carver.
At the end of his undergraduate career in 1894, recognizing Carver's potential, Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel convinced Carver to stay at Iowa State for his master's degree. Carver then performed research at the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station under Pammel from 1894 to his graduation in 1896. It is his work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology that first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist.
In 1896, Carver was invited to lead the Agriculture Department at the five-year-old Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, later Tuskegee University, by its founder, Booker T. Washington. Carver accepted the position, and remained there for 47 years, teaching former slaves farming techniques for self-sufficiency.
In response to Washington's directive to bring education to farmers, Carver designed a mobile school, called a "Jesup wagon" after the New York financier Morris Ketchum Jesup, who provided funding.
In 1902, Booker T. Washington invited Frances Benjamin Johnston, a nationally famous female photographer, to Tuskegee. Carver and Nelson Henry, a Tuskegee graduate, accompanied the attractive white woman to the town of Ramer. Several white citizens thought Henry was improperly associating with a white woman. Someone fired three pistol shots at Henry, and he fled. Mobs prevented him from returning. Carver considered himself fortunate to escape alive.
In 1904, a committee reported that Carver's reports on the poultry yard were exaggerated, and Washington criticized Carver about the exaggerations. Carver replied to Washington "Now to be branded as a liar and party to such hellish deception it is more than I can bear, and if your committee feel that I have willfully lied or [was] party to such lies as were told my resignation is at your disposal."
In 1910, Carver submitted a letter of resignation in response to a reorganization of the agriculture programs. Carver again threatened to resign in 1912 over his teaching assignment. Carver submitted a letter of resignation in 1913, with the intention of heading up an experiment station elsewhere. He also threatened to resign in 1913 and 1914 when he did not get a summer teaching assignment. In each case, Washington smoothed things over. It seemed that Carver's wounded pride prompted most of the resignation threats, especially the last two, because he did not need the money from summer work.
In 1911, Washington wrote a lengthy letter to Carver complaining that Carver did not follow orders to plant certain crops at the experiment station. He also refused Carver's demands for a new laboratory and research supplies for Carver's exclusive use and for Carver to teach no classes. He complimented Carver's abilities in teaching and original research but bluntly remarked on his poor administrative skills, "When it comes to the organization of classes, the ability required to secure a properly organized and large school or section of a school, you are wanting in ability. When it comes to the matter of practical farm managing which will secure definite, practical, financial results, you are wanting again in ability." Also in 1911, Carver complained that his laboratory was still without the equipment promised 11 months earlier. At the same time, Carver complained of committees criticizing him and that his "nerves will not stand" any more committee meetings.
Despite their clashes, Booker T. Washington praised Carver in the 1911 book My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience. Washington called Carver "one of the most thoroughly scientific men of the Negro race with whom I am acquainted." Like most later Carver biographies, it also contained exaggerations. It inaccurately claimed that as a young boy Carver "proved to be such a weak and sickly little creature that no attempt was made to put him to work and he was allowed to grow up among chickens and other animals around the servants' quarters, getting his living as best he could." Carver wrote elsewhere that his adoptive parents, the Carvers, were "very kind" to him.
Carver had an interest in helping poor Southern farmers who were working low-quality soils that had been depleted of nutrients by repeated plantings of cotton crops. He and other agricultural cognoscenti urged farmers to restore nitrogen to their soils by practicing systematic crop rotation, alternating cotton crops with plantings of sweet potatoes or legumes (such as peanuts, soybeans and cowpeas) that were also sources of protein. Following the crop rotation practice resulted in improved cotton yields and gave farmers new foods and alternative cash crops. In order to train farmers to successfully rotate crops and cultivate the new foods, Carver developed an agricultural extension program for Alabama that was similar to the one at Iowa State. In addition, he founded an industrial research laboratory where he and assistants worked to popularize use of the new plants by developing hundreds of applications for them through original research and also by promoting recipes and applications that they collected from others. Carver distributed his information as agricultural bulletins. (See Carver bulletins below.)
Much of Carver's fame is related to the hundreds of plant products he popularized. After Carver's death, lists were created of the plant products Carver compiled or originated. Such lists enumerate about 300 applications for peanuts and 118 for sweet potatoes, although 73 of the 118 were dyes. He made similar investigations into uses for cowpeas, soybeans, and pecans. Carver did not write down formulas for most of his novel plant products so they could not be made by others.
Until 1921, Carver was not widely known for his agricultural research. However, he was known in Washington, D.C. President Theodore Roosevelt publicly admired his work. James Wilson, a former Iowa state dean and teacher of Carver's, was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1897 to 1913. Henry Cantwell Wallace, U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1921 to 1924, was one of Carver's teachers at Iowa State. Carver was a friend of Wallace's son, Henry A. Wallace, also an Iowa State graduate. The younger Wallace served as U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1933 to 1940 and as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's vice president from 1941 to 1945.
In 1916 Carver was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England, one of only a handful of Americans at that time to receive this honor. However, Carver's promotion of peanuts gained him the most fame.
In 1919, Carver wrote to a peanut company about the great potential he saw for his new peanut milk. Both he and the peanut industry seemed unaware that in 1917 William Melhuish had secured patent #1,243,855 for a milk substitute made from peanuts and soybeans. Despite reservations about his race, the peanut industry invited him as a speaker to their 1920 convention. He discussed "The Possibilities of the Peanut" and exhibited 145 peanut products.
By 1920, U.S. peanut farmers were being undercut with imported peanuts from the Republic of China. White peanut farmers and processors came together in 1921 to plead their cause before a Congressional committee hearings on a tariff. Having already spoken on the subject at the convention of the United Peanut Associations of America, Carver was elected to speak in favor of a peanut tariff before the Ways and Means Committee of the United States House of Representatives. Carver was a novel choice because of U.S. racial segregation.
On arrival, Carver was mocked by surprised Southern congressmen, but he was not deterred and began to explain some of the many uses for the peanut. Initially given ten minutes to present, the now spellbound committee extended his time again and again. The committee rose in applause as he finished his presentation, and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 included a tariff on imported peanuts. Carver's presentation to Congress made him famous, while his intelligence, eloquence, amiability, and courtesy delighted the general public.
During the last two decades of his life, Carver seemed to enjoy his celebrity status. He was often to be found on the road promoting Tuskegee, peanuts, and racial harmony. Although he only published six agricultural bulletins after 1922, he published articles in peanut industry journals and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, "Professor Carver's Advice". Business leaders came to seek his help, and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents—Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt—met with him, and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for three weeks.
In 1923, Carver received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, awarded annually for outstanding achievement. From 1923 to 1933, Carver toured white Southern colleges for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.
Carver was famously criticized in the November 20, 1924, New York Times article "Men of Science Never Talk That Way." The Times considered Carver's statements that God guided his research inconsistent with a scientific approach. The criticism garnered much sympathy for Carver, as many Christians viewed it as an attack on religion.
In 1928, Simpson College bestowed on Carver an honorary doctorate. For a 1929 book on Carver, Raleigh H. Merritt contacted him. Merritt wrote "At present not a great deal has been done to utilize Dr. Carver's discoveries commercially. He says that he is merely scratching the surface of scientific investigations of the possibilities of the peanut and other Southern products." Yet, in 1932 professor of literature James Saxon Childers wrote that Carver and his peanut products were almost solely responsible for the rise in U.S. peanut production after the boll weevil devastated the American cotton crop beginning about 1892. Childer's 1932 article on Carver, "A Boy Who Was Traded for a Horse", in The American Magazine, and its 1937 reprint in Reader's Digest, did much to establish this Carver myth.
Other major magazines and newspapers of the time also exaggerated Carver's impact on the peanut industry.
From 1933 to 1935, Carver was largely occupied with work on peanut oil massages for treating infantile paralysis (polio). Carver received tremendous media attention and visitations from parents and their sick children; however, it was ultimately found that peanut oil was not the miracle cure it was made out to be—it was the massages which provided the benefits. Carver had been a trainer for the Iowa State football team and was skilled as a masseur. From 1935 to 1937, Carver participated in the USDA Disease Survey. Carver had specialized in plant diseases and mycology for his master's degree.
In 1937, Carver attended two chemurgy conferences. He met Henry Ford at the Dearborn, Michigan, conference, and they became close friends. Also in 1937, Carver's health declined. Time magazine reported in 1941 that Henry Ford installed an elevator for Carver because his doctor told him not to climb the 19 stairs to his room. In 1942, the two men denied that they were working together on a solution to the wartime rubber shortage. Carver also did work with soy, which he and Ford considered as an alternative fuel.
In 1939, Carver received the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture enscribed "to a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race as well as the black." In 1940, Carver established the George Washington Carver Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1941, The George Washington Carver Museum was dedicated at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1942, Henry Ford built a replica of Carver's slave cabin at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn as a tribute to his friend. Also in 1942, Ford dedicated the George Washington Carver Laboratory in Dearborn.
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 78 from complications (anemia) resulting from this fall. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University. Due to his frugality, Carver's life savings totaled $60,000, all of which he donated in his last years and at his death to the Carver Museum and to the George Washington Carver Foundation.
On his grave was written, He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.
Before and after his death, there was a movement to establish a U.S. national monument to Carver. However, because of World War II such non-war expenditures were banned by presidential order. Missouri senator Harry S. Truman sponsored a bill anyway. In a committee hearing on the bill, one supporter argued that "The bill is not simply a momentary pause on the part of busy men engaged in the conduct of the war, to do honor to one of the truly great Americans of this country, but it is in essence a blow against the Axis, it is in essence a war measure in the sense that it will further unleash and release the energies of roughly 15,000,000 Negro people in this country for full support of our war effort." The bill passed in both houses without a single vote against.
On July 14, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National Monument west-southwest of Diamond, Missouri—an area where Carver had spent time in his childhood. This was the first national monument dedicated to an African-American and also the first to a non-President. At this 210-acre national monument, there is a bust of Carver, a ¾-mile nature trail, a museum, the 1881 Moses Carver house, and the Carver cemetery. Due to a variety of delays, the national monument was not opened until July 1953.
In December 1947, a fire broke out in the Carver Museum, and much of the collection was damaged from flames, heat, smoke, and water. Time Magazine reported that all but three of the 48 Carver paintings at the museum were destroyed. His best-known painting, which was displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1898 in Chicago, depicts a yucca and cactus. This canvas survived, but blistering and smoke damage marred the surface. It remains on display in the museum, along with several of his other paintings, having undergone conservation. Carver appeared on U.S. commemorative stamps in 1948 and 1998, and he was depicted on a commemorative half dollar coin from 1951 to 1954. Two ships, the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver and the nuclear submarine USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656) were named in his honor.
In 1977, Carver was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1990, Carver was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1994, Iowa State University awarded Carver Doctor of Humane Letters. In 2000, Carver was a charter inductee in the USDA Hall of Heroes as the "Father of Chemurgy".
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed George Washington Carver on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
In 2005, Carver's research at the Tuskegee Institute was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society. On February 15, 2005, an episode of Modern Marvels included scenes from within Iowa State University's Food Sciences Building and about Carver's work. In 2005, the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, opened a George Washington Carver garden in his honor, which includes a lifesize statue of him.
Many institutions honor George Washington Carver to this day, particularly the American public school system. Dozens of elementary schools and high schools are named after him. National Basketball Association star David Robinson and his wife, Valerie, founded an academy named after Carver; it opened on September 17, 2001, in San Antonio, Texas.