George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver was born on a Missouri farm near Diamond Grove sometime toward the end of the U.S. Civil War. The exact date of
his birth was never recorded, although later in life Carver gave the year as 1864. His father died in an accident prior to or shortly after Carver's birth. His mother Mary was kidnapped with her infant son by slave raiders shortly after his birth. Although Carver was eventually returned to Moses and Susan Carver in exchange for a horse, his mother was never heard from again.
Carver was not a strong child and this prevented him from working the fields. Instead, he helped with household chores and gardening. It is likely that these duties and the hours spent exploring the woods surrounding his home induced his keen interest in plants and led to his life of study and scholarly pursuits. He gathered and cared for a wide variety of plants from throughout the region and frequently helped friends and neighbors treat ailing plants.
As an adolescent, Carver was sent to Neosho, Missouri, where he worked as a farmhand and studied in a one-room schoolhouse. From there, he moved to Kansas and attended Minneapolis High School. In 1885, as a young adult, Carver was accepted to Highland University in Kansas on scholarship. However, when he showed up the first day of class, the president of the university is said to have denied him entrance because of his race. Other colleges rejected him for the same reason, but that did not stop Carver from attempting to seek a higher education.
In 1890 Carver entered Simpson College, a Methodist school in Indianola, Iowa, to study piano and art. While he excelled at both, his art instructor Etta Budd recognized his horticultural talent. She persuaded him to pursue a more pragmatic career in scientific agriculture. In 1891 Carver transferred to the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which is now Iowa State University. Carver was the first African-American student accepted by the college.
As an undergraduate student, Carver was a leader. He became involved in all facets of university life; his poetry was published in the student newspaper and his paintings exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It was for his excellence as a botanist, however, that he earned his B.S. in agriculture in 1894. Joseph Budd (Etta's father and a professor of horticulture) and Louis Pammel (a botany professor) encouraged Carver to stay on as a graduate student. His proficiency in plant breeding soon led to his appointment as a member of the Iowa State faculty. Over the next two years, Carver's extensive work in plant pathology and mycology (the branch of botany that studies fungi) prompted him to publish several articles, and, as a consequence, he gained national respect as a scientist. In 1896 he earned his M.S. in agriculture from Iowa State and was invited by Booker T. Washington to join Alabama's Tuskegee Institute.
At Tuskegee, Carver found his intellectual home. As the director of its Agricultural Experiment Station, he was given a barren 21-acre plot to work on. Carver and his students conducted experiments on crops requiring low input and capable of fixing nitrogen, such as the cowpea and the peanut. The resulting soil enrichment substantially increased crop production and became an accepted agricultural practice for both cotton and tobacco growers.
It was working with the surplus of peanuts that this practice produced that led to Carver's reputation as a "chemurgist," a chemist interested in the industrial applications of organic raw materials and particularly farm products. His research resulted in the creation of over 325 different products from peanuts, ranging from buttermilk to shaving cream to synthetic rubber. He generated 108 products from the sweet potato and invented countless other products from a wide variety of agricultural plants—everything from pecans to soybeans. Indeed, Carver pursued biomass conversion with a zeal that is only now being matched as contemporary society searches for alternatives to fossil fuel consumption.
Toward the end of his life, Carver received numerous accolades and honors; a feature film about his life was even produced in 1938. He died on January 5, 1943. In 1994 Iowa State posthumously awarded Carver the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. This was a fitting tribute to a life spent in the pursuit of knowledge.
SEE ALSO Agricultural Chemistry .
Todd W. Whitcombe
Holt, Rackham (1945). George Washington Carver: An American Biography. New York: Doubleday.
Kremer, Gary S., ed. (1987). George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
McMurry, Linda O. (1982). George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press.