George Washington Carver (January 1864 – January 5, 1943), was an American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor. The exact day and year of his birth are unknown; he is believed to have been born into slavery in Missouri in January 1864.
Carver’s reputation is based on his research into and promotion of alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, which also aided nutrition for farm families. 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 using peanuts. He also developed and promoted about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP.
During the Reconstruction-era South, monoculture of cotton depleted the soil in many areas. In the early 20th century, the boll weevil destroyed much of the cotton crop, and planters and farm workers suffered. Carver’s work on peanuts was intended to provide an alternative crop.
Carver was born into slavery in Diamond Grove, Newton County, near Crystal Place, now known as Diamond, Missouri, possibly in 1864 or 1865, though the exact date is not known. His master, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant who had purchased George’s parents, Mary and Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for $700. 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. The kidnappers sold the slaves in Kentucky. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but he located only the infant George. Moses negotiated with the raiders to gain the boy’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 to continue his intellectual pursuits, and “Aunt Susan” taught him the basics of reading and writing.
Black people were not allowed at the public school in Diamond Grove. Learning there was a school for black children 10 miles (16 km) south in Neosho, George decided to go there. When he reached the town, he found the school closed for the night. 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 a black man killed by a group of whites, Carver left the city. He attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in the Kansas town of the same name.
Carver applied to several colleges before being accepted at Highland College in Highland, Kansas. when he arrived, they rejected him because of his race. 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. He manually plowed 17 acres (69,000 m2) of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery. He also earned money by odd jobs in town and worked as a ranch hand.
In early 1888, Carver obtained a $300 loan at the Bank of Ness City for education. By June he 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; she encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames. When he began in 1891, he was the first black student, and later taught as the first black faculty member.
When he completed his B.S., professors Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel convinced Carver to continue at Iowa State for his master’s degree. Carver did research at the Iowa Experiment Station under Pammel during the next two years. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist.
In 1896, Booker T. Washington, the first principal and president of the Tuskegee Institute, invited Carver to head its Agriculture Department. Carver taught there for 47 years, developing the department into a strong research center and working with two additional college presidents during his tenure. He taught methods of crop rotation, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency.
Carver designed a mobile classroom to take education out to farmers. He called it a “Jesup wagon” after the New York financier and philanthropist Morris Ketchum Jesup, who provided funding to support the program.
To recruit Carver to Tuskegee, Washington gave him a higher-than-normal salary and two rooms for his personal use, both of which concessions were resented by some other faculty. Because he had earned a master’s in a scientific field from a “white” institution, some faculty perceived him as arrogant when a young man. Unmarried faculty members normally had to share rooms, with two to a room, in the spartan early days of the institute.
One of Carver’s duties was to administer the Agricultural Experiment Station farms. He had to manage the production and sale of farm products to generate revenue for the Institute. He soon proved to be a poor administrator. In 1900, Carver complained that the physical work and the letter-writing required were too much. In 1904, an Institute committee reported that Carver’s reports on yields from the poultry yard were exaggerated, and Washington confronted Carver about the issue. Carver replied in writing, “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.” During Washington’s last five years at Tuskegee, Carver submitted or threatened his resignation several times: when the administration reorganized the agriculture programs, when he disliked a teaching assignment, to manage an experiment station elsewhere, and when he did not get summer teaching assignments in 1913-1914. In each case, Washington smoothed things over.
Carver started his academic career as a researcher and teacher, which he clearly preferred. In 1911, Washington wrote a letter to him complaining that Carver had not followed orders to plant particular crops at the experiment station This revealed Washington’s micro-management of Carver’s department, which he had headed for more than 10 years by then. Washington at the same time refused Carver’s requests for a new laboratory, research supplies for his exclusive use, and respite from teaching classes. Washington praised Carver’s abilities in teaching and original research but said about his 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.”
In 1911, Carver complained that his laboratory had not received the equipment which Washington had promised 11 months before. He also complained about Institute committee meetings. Washington praised Carver in his 1911 memoir, 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.”  After Washington died in 1915, his successor made fewer demands on Carver for administrative tasks.
From 1915 to 1923, Carver concentrated on researching and experimenting with new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and other crops, as well as having his assistants research and compile existing uses. This work, and especially his speaking to a national conference of the Peanut Growers Association in 1920 and in testimony before Congress in 1921 to support passage of a tariff on imported peanuts, brought him wide publicity and increasing renown. In these years, he became one of the most well-known African Americans of his time.
Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. Together with other agricultural experts, he 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). These both restored nitrogen to the soil and the crops were good for human consumption. Following the crop rotation practice resulted in improved cotton yields and gave farmers alternative cash crops. To train farmers to successfully rotate and cultivate the new crops, Carver developed an agricultural extension program for Alabama that was similar to the one at Iowa State. To encourage better nutrition in the South, he widely distributed recipes using the alternative crops.
In addition, he founded an industrial research laboratory, where he and assistants worked to popularize the new crops by developing hundreds of applications for them. They did original research as well as promoting applications and recipes which they collected from others. Carver distributed his information as agricultural bulletins. (See Carver bulletins below.)
Carver’s work was known by officials in the national capital before he became a public figure. President Theodore Roosevelt publicly admired his work. Former professors of Carver’s from Iowa State University were appointed to positions as Secretary of Agriculture: James Wilson, a former dean and professor of Carver’s, served from 1897 to 1913. Henry Cantwell Wallace served from 1921 to 1924. He knew Carver personally as his son Henry A. Wallace and the researcher were friends. 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. Carver’s promotion of peanuts gained him the most notability. In 1919, Carver wrote to a peanut company about the potential he saw for 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.
The United Peanut Associations of America invited Carver to speak at their 1920 convention. He discussed “The Possibilities of the Peanut” and exhibited 145 peanut products. By 1920, the U.S. peanut farmers were being undercut by low prices on imported peanuts from the Republic of China.
In 1921 peanut farmers and industry representatives planned to appear at Congressional hearings to ask for a tariff. Based on the quality of Carver’s presentation at their convention, they asked the African-American professor to testify on the tariff issue before the Ways and Means Committee of the United States House of Representatives. Due to segregation, it was highly unusual for an African American to appear as an expert witness at Congress representing European-American industry and farmers. Southern congressmen, reportedly shocked at Carver’s arriving to testify, were said to have mocked him. As he talked about the importance of the peanut and its uses for American agriculture, the committee members repeatedly extended the time for his testimony. The Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 was passed including one on imported peanuts. Carver’s testifying to Congress made him widely known as a public figure.
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. From 1923 to 1933, Carver toured white Southern colleges for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.
With his increasing notability, Carver became the subject of biographies and articles. Raleigh H. Merritt contacted him for his biography published in 1929. 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.”
In 1932 the writer 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. His article, “A Boy Who Was Traded for a Horse” (1932), in The American Magazine, and its 1937 reprint in Reader’s Digest, contributed to this myth about Carver’s influence. Other popular media tended to exaggerate Carver’s impact on the peanut industry.
From 1933 to 1935, Carver worked to develop peanut oil massages to treat infantile paralysis (polio). Ultimately researchers found that the massages, not the peanut oil, provided the benefits of maintaining some mobility to paralyzed limbs.
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, an emerging field in the 1930s, during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, concerned with developing new products from crops. He was invited by Henry Ford to speak at the conference held in Dearborn, Michigan, and they developed a friendship. That year Carver’s health declined, and Ford later installed an elevator at the Tuskegee dormitory where Carver lived, so that the elderly man would not have to climb stairs.
Carver had been frugal in his life, and in his 70s established a legacy by creating a museum on his work and the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee in 1938 to continue agricultural research. He donated nearly $60,000 in his savings to create the foundation.
- Carver, George Washington. “1897 or Thereabouts: George Washington Carver’s Own Brief History of His Life.” George Washington Carver National Monument.
- Hersey, Mark D. My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver (University of Georgia Press; 2011) 306 pages;
- McMurry, L. O. “Carver, George Washington.” American National Biography Online Feb. 2000
- Collins, David R. George Washington Carver: Man’s Slave, God’s Scientist, (Mott Media, 1981)
- William J. Federer, George Washington Carver: His Life & Faith in His Own Words, AmeriSearch (January 2003) ISBN 0-9653557-6-4
- George Washington Carver: In His Own Words (Paperback), ed. G.R. Kremer, University of Missouri Press; 1987, Reprint edition (January 1991) ISBN 0-8262-0785-5 ISBN 978-0-8262-0785-2
- H.M. Morris, Men of Science, Men of God (1982)
- E.C. Barnett and D. Fisher, Scientists Who Believe (1984)