Science history: The ex-slave who transformed the American South
George Washington Carver became a pioneering agricultural scientist – working, literally, for peanuts. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
Before evaluating the scientific contributions of George Washington Carver, it is worthwhile considering his origins
Carver was born on a farm near Diamond Grove, a village in the US state of Missouri.
As a child of slaves, his birthdate is a matter of some debate, sources ranging from 1860 to 1865, although Tuskegee University, in Alabama, where he did most of his work, gives the date as 12 July 12 1864.
According to the State Historical Society of Missouri, Carver’s mother, Mary, was owned by white farmers Moses and Susan Carver. His father, a slave on a neighbouring farm, died before George was born.
While the American Civil War raged, the infant George and his mother were kidnapped from the Carver farm by outlaws hoping to sell them elsewhere. The child was recovered and returned to the Carvers but his mother was not. He was raised by Moses and Susan.
A frail child, George was put to work indoors doing household chores. He left the farm and took up residence in various other homes, where he learnt about gardening, food preparation and herbal lore.
At age 11, he received his first opportunity to attend school, earning a high school diploma in his 20s. Hoping to study art and music, he enrolled at Simpson College in Iowa, but was encouraged by a teacher to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 1894 and a master’s in 1896.
He was pursued by the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, in Alabama, a recently established vocational school for African Americans. Carver joined the faculty in 1896 and stayed there the rest of his life.
He was both a teacher and a prolific researcher, heading up the institute’s agricultural experiment station.
All around the American South, farmers had been growing cotton for generations, and the soil had become depleted, stripped of fertility. Carver analysed it and determined that crops such as peanuts, beans and sweet potatoes would do well, with the crucial advantage that such species added nutrients back into exhausted fields.
Thus, he schooled farmers in crop rotation and the use of fertilisers. The land recovered and cotton remained king in the South.
The new plantings thrived too, but now Carver faced a new problem: a surplus of peanuts and sweet potatoes.
As the Science History Institute tells it, Carver went to work to find new food, industrial and commercial products. From peanuts alone he developed hundreds of new products.
When he’d arrived at Tuskegee in 1896, the peanut was not recognised as a crop in the US. By 1940 it had become one of the six leading harvests in the country and the second most important cash crop in the South, after cotton.
George Washington Carver died on 5 January 5 1943, aged 78, after falling down the stairs at his home. His epitaph read: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honour in being helpful to the world.”