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Who was George Washington Carver?

Updated on December 3, 2016

Carver was internationally known for his research in agricultural chemistry, and he is credited with having revolutionized agriculture in the southern United States. As a teacher and as the head of agricultural research at Tuskegee Institute, Carver dedicated his career to finding uses for plant products and to teaching farmers the advantages of diversifying their crops.

Carver found more than 300 uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and the by-products of these crops. From peanuts he synthesized axle grease, soap, ink, flour, plastics, a coffee substitute, and more than 200 other useful products. From sweet potatoes he derived 118 products, including molasses, vinegar, and rubber, and from soybeans he extracted an oil with many uses. Partly as a result of Carver's research, peanut cultivation in the southern states quadrupled from 1899 to 1943. By planting peanuts and sweet potatoes in addition to cotton, farmers were able to enrich their soil and were no longer economically dependent upon the success or failure of only one kind of crop.

Early Life and Education

Carver was born near Diamond Grove, Mo., the son of Negro slaves. Although the exact date of his birth is not known, it has been deduced that he was born on or about July 12, 1861. While Carver was still an infant, his father was killed, and his mother, along with George and another child, was kidnapped from her master, Moses Carver. Moses Carver bought back the sickly infant George for a horse valued at $300. George remained with the Carvers, whose surname he took, for some years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Even as a youth he had a keen and inquiring mind and an instinctive knowledge of plants. He left his home with the Carvers when he was 10 to enroll in a one-room school at Neosho, Mo. By hard work and the help of benefactors, Carver was able to continue his education. In 1885 he finished high school in Minneapolis, Kans., but although his credentials were accepted by Highland University, he was refused admittance because of his race. In 1890 he enrolled at Simpson College, at Indianola, Iowa. Despite his talent and interest in painting, Carver's art teacher encouraged him, because of his skill with plants, to enroll the next year at the State Agricultural College in Ames, where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1894. He was then employed at the Ames Experiment Station as assistant to Louis Pammell, a noted botanist and mycologist. After receiving his master's degree at Ames in 1896, he accepted Booker T. Washington's invitation to head the newly organized department of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Agricultural Research and Contributions

Carver found the land in Alabama exhausted by single-crop cotton cultivation, eroded for lack of plant cover, and parched by the sun. He found ways of restoring the mineral content of the soil by planting nitrogen-producing legumes, and he discovered that peanuts and sweet potatoes would yield especially productive crops in the Alabama soil. He then taught farmers crop diversification. When many heeded his advice but found no ready markets for their new products, Carver began experiments that resulted in more than 300 by-products of the peanut and sweet potato. His demonstrations of the commercial possibilities of these products virtually changed the economy of the south.

Just as spectacular was Carver's work with hybrids and various types of fertilizer. On the experimental farm at Tuskegee he evolved a cross between short-stalk and tall-stalk cotton, known as Carver's hybrid, and several other strains. He also grew enormous vegetables. Carver and Henry Ford collaborated on many matters, and together they perfected a process for extracting rubber from the milk of the goldenrod.

Carver instituted a visiting day for small farmers to come to Tuskegee to learn about soil fertilization. For those who were unable to travel to the campus, Carver began a "school on wheels," going into the communities to give demonstrations. His movable school idea was soon adopted by the U. S. Department of Agriculture and in many foreign countries.

The results of Carver's research and the products of his laboratory became known throughout the world. As a consequence, many persons, including Thomas Edison, offered him employment at high salaries, but he would not leave Tuskegee. Moreover, he would not accept a raise in salary above the meager $1,500 a year that Booker T. Washington offered him when he first came to Tuskegee.

Carver's first publication from Tuskegee, a pamphlet called "Feeding Acorns to Livestock" (1898), was followed by 43 other publications. Among the honors he received were election to fellowship in the British Royal Society of Arts in 1916 and awards of the Spingarn Medal in 1923, the Roosevelt Medal in 1939, and the Thomas A. Edison Foundation Award in 1942.

In 1940 the Carver Research Foundation was established at Tuskegee Institute. Carver contributed most of his savings to the foundation. Following his death on January 5, 1943, in Tuskegee, Ala., his entire estate was added to the foundation's endowment. The Carver Museum at Tuskegee, which houses many exhibits of Carver's work, was dedicated in 1941. The George Washington Carver National Monument is at the site of the Moses Carver farm. Congress has designated January 5 as a day to honor Carver each year.

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    • bluebird profile image

      bluebird 6 years ago

      Good hub on a wonderful subject! GWC was quite the example, a wonderful human being who loved God and nature. His nurturing, caring spirit is shown by a quote of his which is a favorite of mine:

      "And many are the tears I have shed because I would break the roots or flower off of some of my pets while removing them from the ground."

      If only we all showed such tender, loving care to God's good green earth! God help us try harder!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Terrific biography of a wonderful man. Thank you so much, we are so proud of him here in America.

    • profile image

      MichelleL. 7 years ago from Where it is cold

      Novice historian speaking here.....I just love it. Very informative. He was a fascinating man.