During Black History Month this February, we pay tribute to George Washington Carver (1864-1943), an African-American agricultural scientist and inventor best known for his work with peanuts.
Born into slavery, Carver displayed his aptitude for plant science at an early age and despite the obstacles inherent to an African-American of that period, rose to become the director of agricultural research at the famed Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, devoting his life to agricultural science. He taught organic farming to farmers, pioneered crop rotation techniques, and invented products derived from plants such as linoleum, laundry soap, shoe polish, paints, and peanut butter.
George Washington Carver was born on the Moses Carver plantation on July 12, in Diamond Grove, MO. The exact year is not known, but is believed to be 1864. As an infant, Carver was kidnapped by slave raiders along with his mother. While Carver was found and returned to the plantation, his mother was never found. His father died just before Carver was born.
Due to illness, Carver was too frail to work in the fields and instead, helped with household chores and gardening. Probably because of this time spent exploring the woods near his home, he developed an interest in plants. Soon, he became known in the community as “the plant doctor” as he helped friends and neighbors with ailing plants. He learned to read and write and when he turned 12, Carver moved to Kansas and then Iowa to pursue a desire for formal education.
In 1890, Carver enrolled at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa where he studied painting and piano. Although he excelled in the subjects, while there, one of his teachers recognized his talents in horticulture and encouraged him to pursue a career in scientific agriculture. So in 1891, he enrolled at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, today known as Iowa State University, as the school’s first African-American.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1894, some of his professors encouraged him to stay on as a graduate student. Because of his skills in plant breeding, he was appointed to the faculty as the university’s first African-American faculty member. After developing skills in plant pathology and mycology, he published several articles that gained national respect. In 1896, he earned his master’s degree and soon after, was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where he would remain until 1935. At that time, he took a position as collaborator in the Division of Plant Mycology and Disease Survey of the Bureau of Plant Industry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Greatest Teacher
Carver taught his students that nature was the greatest teacher—and that by understanding nature, you can understand the dynamics of agriculture. Throughout his life, he contributed to rural and economic improvements and believed in the importance of contributing the betterment of a community. Carver’s work included creating products from plants that are native to the South—325 products from peanuts, 175 from sweet potatoes, 60 from pecans and hundreds more from dozens of other plants. Despite numerous inventions, Carver holds only three patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 1,522,176, 1,541,478, and 1,632,365) granted between 1925 and 1927—one for a pomade cream made from peanuts, and the other two for a process of producing paints and stains from clay.
Creating movable schools, Carver brought agricultural knowledge directly to farmers, helping promote better health, nutrition and self-sufficiency. His contributions included developing a crop rotation method that improved soil fertility by alternating soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops such as peanuts, soybeans, peas, sweek potatoes and pecans. Among botanists, he is known for his development of new varieties of cotton, and the Amaryllis, as well as his discovery in 1897 of two fungi that were named after him. More than 100 fungi specimens collected by Carver are housed in The New York Botanical Garden fungus herbarium.
George Washington Carver received many awards and honors during his life and after. In 1936, he received the Theodore Roosevelt Medal for distinguished achievement in science. In 1940, he established the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee Institute. He died in 1943. The Tuskegee Institute dedicated a museum to him, the George Washington Carver Museum, and his birthplace was made a national monument on July 14, 1953. Two commemorative stamps have been issued in his honor, in 1947 and 1998, and a fifty-cent coin in 1951. In 1977, he was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and 1990, to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Google Patent Search
The Fungal Collections of George Washington Carver at NYBG
The Legacy of George Washington Carver