George Washington Carver (ca. 1865-1943), Internationally Known Scientist and Educator

  • Developed crop-rotation methods which changed the nature of agriculture;
  • Discovered multiple different uses for crops such as the peanut; the peanut plant enriches the soil but then farmers needed ways to sell the additional peanut crops they were producing.
  • Internationally known educator who also worked for racial equality

 George Washington Carver was born into a slave family in Diamond Grove, Missouri. His father died in an accident shortly before his birth, and when he was still an infant, Carver and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders who hoped to sell them for money.  George was rescued by a neighbor and returned to Moses and Susan Carver, the owners of the farm where his family had lived. His mother was never seen again.

Carver’s older brother worked in the fields with Moses but George was a frail child so he helped Susan with household chores and gardening. He became quite knowledgeable about plants, and local people would consult him on what to do when a particular plant or crop was not doing well.

There was no school for him to attend in Diamond Grove but Susan taught him to read and write and eventually found a school in southwest Missouri he could attend, and she arranged for him to stay with a local family; for high school he had to move around, doing chores to support himself while finishing his education. After Carver was rejected by one college because of his skin color, a family helped get him into Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa to study piano and painting.

One of his art teachers there realized he could have a career if he were to gain a scientific education to go along with his knowledge of plants. The teacher’s father was head of the department of horticulture at Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), and soon Carver became the first African-American to attend the Agricultural College. Because of his proficiency in plant breeding, Carver was appointed to the faculty, becoming Iowa State’s first African American faculty member.

After earning a masters degree in 1897, Carver was invited by Booker T. Washington to come to be the director of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute where he spent the rest of his career doing research and teaching.

After teaching farmers the benefits of rotating their crops, he was determined to find uses for the peanuts and peas that provided the soil with the needed nitrogen to grow cash crops such as cotton.  He eventually found 325 various uses for peanuts and peanut oil—from cooking oil to printers ink. Sweet potatoes were also a good alternate crop to cotton, and Carver came up with about 100 uses for the sweet potato.

Another concept Carver had learned while at Iowa Agriculture College was the concept of an extension program, and at Tuskegee he promoted mobile schools that involved taking the knowledge to the farmers in the field, something that was very beneficial to rural farmers.

As Carver worked tirelessly in his laboratory in Tuskegee from 1900 to 1920, his fame grew. He became widely known for his agricultural innovations. He also became known as a promoter of racial equality.

Carver died at Tuskegee in 1943 and is buried near Booker T. Washington. He received many honors in his lifetime and after. He was the first African-American to have memorial built in his honor; it stands on the farm where he was born.

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