Today, I want to tell you about one of my heroes, George Washington Carver, agricultural chemist, inventor, professor, artist, pianist, violinist, and singer. If you enjoy peanut butter, you have GWC to thank for finding more than 326 uses for peanuts, including wood stains. He was equally inventive with the sweet potato, which garnered many uses, like the peanut, including medicines to mitigate the effects of syphilis. Remember, Carver was a professor at Tuskegee Normal Institute, now called Tuskegee University. Many of his students were part of the infamous, “Tuskegee Experiment” that injected syphilis into “Negro” males to watch and record the devastating effects. That is one of the reason why we, social researchers, have to register our research plans with institutional review boards monitoring research on human subjects.
Well, let’s back up a bit. If you’re ever traveling in Southwest Missouri on Interstate-44, you will see an exit for Diamond, Missouri. That’s where “The Plant Doctor”‘s life began. He and his mother went to live on the Carver Plantation. One night, George and his mother were kidnapped. She was killed, and the little, sickly boy was returned to the Carver Plantation, which is now a National Monument, operated by the Department of Interior. The Monument was established in 1930 by President F. D. Roosevelt, who gave $30,000 toward the building of the Monument. FDR had met Carver, and greatly admired him. I had already adored Carver, but after my visit, my adoration deepened.
Because little George was sickly, he was able to stay in the main Carver home while the other slaves worked in the cotton and vegetable fields. It was there that George learned to sew, knit, crochet, wash clothes, and where he became a musician. He mastered the violin, piano, and sang, beautifully. He had a natural with plants, and was able to help the sharecroppers to make their fields more productive while maintaining the integrity and health of the soil. Carver taught the people about crop rotation. For example, when the cotton stripped away soil nutrients, GWC helped them to use sweet potatoes and peanuts as a source for money and a source to feed the soil nitrogen and other nutrients.
When George was a teen, (about 15ish), he was denied admission to schools in Missouri, so he headed west to Kansas stopping first in Fort Scott in Bourbon County, Kansas. He soon found his way to Western Kansas in Ness County, and then to Minneapolis, Kansas and homesteaded near Beeler, Kansas. He supported himself by taking in laundry while he studied to graduate high school. When it was time for college, Carver had been accepted into a Kansas college until he arrived for actual registration. He was told that he could not attend college since he was a “Negro”.
Not to be deterred, Carver headed to Iowa where he was admitted into Simpson College. His art teacher noticed his great detail when sketching plants. She suggested that Carver talk to biologist at what is not Iowa State University. After graduating with his Master’s Degree, Carver taught chemistry and biology at Iowa State. The young professor and inventor caught the eye of Henry Ford after making rubber out of golden rod plant. He caught the eye of Thomas Edison who want Carver to come to New Jersey to work for him. An idealist, Carver accepted the call from Booker T. Washington, then the head of Tuskegee. Carver wanted to go where he’d “do the most good”. It was at Tuskegee that Carver lived out the rest of his life teaching, inventing, and helping farmers increase yields and their incomes. Carver is best known for his work with peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans. Carver lived a simple life and never had living quarters larger than one that held a twin-sized bed, a bureau, and a small desk. Most of his days were spent in the laboratory and finding ways to help his students “make a mark in the world”.
Carver’s Honors include:
- Named Fellow, London Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts
- ‘Springarm Medal for Distinguished Service
- Collaborator – Division of Plant Mycology: USDA
- Roosevelt Medal for Contributions to Southern Agriculture
- Popular Mechanics Top 50 Outstanding Americans
- National Inventors’ Hall of Fame.
I do have a reference list if you’re interested.
I work at an agricultural experiment station. If Carver were alive today, he’d be one of my colleagues! If you want to know more, do some research on his Jesup Agricultural Wagon, on which he’d take his research to the farmers to show them the latest in crop and soil research. You can see a replica at the GWC National Monument near Diamond, Missouri.
Thank you for reading.