National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee George Washington Carver overcame great personal hardship to become a world-famous chemist whose discoveries revolutionized agriculture.
His research on sweet potatoes and peanuts (and their ability to reintroduce nitrogen back into the ground) would prove life-changing for poor farmers whose cotton crop drained the soil of its nutrients.
An Early Interest in Plants
While the exact date of Carver’s birth is unknown, historians believe that he was born in January or June of 1864 on a farm near Diamond, Missouri, a year before slavery was abolished there. He and his mother lived on a farm owned by Moses and Susan Carver, and his father, who was enslaved at a neighboring farm, died before he was born.
When Carver was just a baby, his mother and sister were kidnapped from their farm by slave raiders and sold in Kentucky. While George was rescued by a neighbor and brought back to the Carver farm, his mother was not. Because of this, he and his brother Jim were raised by Moses and Susan.
Because he was both frail and sick as a child, rather than helping with farm work like his brother, Carver spent a majority of his time completing chores and tending to the garden, where he developed an interest in plants. He quickly became known as “the plant doctor” to nearby farmers for his ability to improve the health of their fields and crops.
Susan also taught him how to read and write, and when he turned 11, Carver left his home and moved to Neosho, Missouri, to attend a school for Black children. Disappointed with the quality of the education, after two years Carver moved to Kansas, where he later graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
Using the domestic skills he learned as a boy to earn a living, Carver traveled throughout the Midwest during the early 1880s, finally settling in Ames, Iowa, where he attended the State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study agriculture. Here he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1894 and graduate degree in 1896.
Breakthroughs at the Tuskegee Institute
Following Carver’s graduate work, famed intellectual and educator Booker T. Washington offered him a job teaching and helping establish an agricultural school at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). While this proved to be a great opportunity, his early years at Tuskegee were not without its difficulties.
To start with, many farmers from the South were skeptical of agricultural studies and viewed school as a way to escape the actual work required in the fields. Many faculty members at Tuskegee also complained that Carver was receiving special treatment and cited his comparatively high salary and use of two dormitory rooms — one for his plant specimens and the other for himself.
However, Carver continued to work diligently in his laboratory. He conducted soil studies and discovered that the region’s soil was ideal for growing peanuts and sweet potatoes. As cotton was the most popular crop in the South at the time and was very nutrient intensive to grow, Carver began teaching farmers that by rotating the growth of cotton with legumes and sweet potatoes, farmers could both improve the health of their soil and increase their cotton yield.
The Peanut Man
While farmers were pleased with the results of this new farming method, many now found themselves with a surplus of peanuts and sweet potatoes, and they were unsure of what to do with them.
Carver solved this problem by inventing many different uses for these crops. He turned sweet potatoes, for example, into flour, vinegar and even writing ink, dyes and paint.
It was with peanuts, however, that George found his greatest success. While he did not invent peanut butter, as is commonly believed, in total he developed 325 different uses for peanuts, including milk, cooking oil, paper, soap and wood stains.
Because of this, Carver became very prominent in the peanut industry, and in 1921 he even appeared before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which at the time was requesting tariff protection. During his testimony, he described the many different products that could be produced from peanuts and convinced the committee to approve “a high protected tariff for the common legume.”
This achievement earned him the nickname “Peanut Man.”
A Lasting Legacy
When Carver had first arrived at Tuskegee in 1896, the peanut was not even recognized as an official U.S. crop. However, by 1940 it ranked among the six leading crops in the country and became the second most popular cash crop in the South behind cotton. Today, both peanuts and sweet potatoes are consumed regularly by millions of people across the country.
Through his research and discoveries, Carver helped raise the standard of living for poor farmers across the South by improving both their cotton yield and their diet with the growth of peanuts and sweet potatoes.
When Carver passed away on Jan. 5, 1943, he contributed his life savings to establish an institute at Tuskegee. That same year, Congress passed a bill establishing his birthplace as a national monument and in 1953, the location was officially dedicated — the first ever dedicated to a Black American and non-president.
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