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George Washington Carver

Born into slavery and raised during reconstruction, George Washington Carver was born in Diamond Grove, Missouri. No record exists of the actual date of his birth, but Carver referred to it as occurring “near the end of the war” or “just as freedom was declared.” After the death of his father and disappearance of his mother, both black slaves, his mother’s owners raised Carver and he eventually took their name as his own.

Carver’s fragile health limited his ability to engage in the normal activities of a farm boy, such as working in the fields. Instead he worked at domestic matters such as laundry, cooking, tanning, and canning. These skills later provided his livelihood as he traveled from school to school in search of knowledge.

As he explored the world outside the house—an environment that piqued his natural curiosity—he became interested in restoring ailing plants, a focus that earned him the nickname “The Plant Doctor.” After attending several rural schools, he entered Iowa Agricultural College, now Iowa State University, to focus on agriculture. His study and testing of crops led to solving problems related to soil and the growth of plants. Upon graduation in 1894, Carver became assistant botanist in Iowa Agricultural College’s experiment station where he became a skilled hybridizer of fruits and plants that were resistant to the attack of fungus.

Even with his substantial achievements, he experienced a vague discontent. Was he fulfilling the admonition of Aunt Mariah, a friend who advised him to “learn all you can? Go out in the world and give your learning back to our people.” He believed that God had a plan for him and, in God’s time, he would know that plan.

Booker T. Washington, President of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, invited Carver to found and head its Agriculture Department. The Institute paid him a low salary and offered no prestige, but the position appealed to him because he might offer other African Americans, who were steps away from degradation and poverty, the opportunity for a better life. Because 85 percent of southern blacks were farmers and 100 years of cotton farming had completely depleted the soil of the south, Carver was one of Washington’s most important faculty choices.

In the classroom and in rural meetings, Carver helped his students and farmers to learn to restore the soil through crop rotation and diversification. They learned that the peanut enabled the soil to breathe and replenish nutrients. However, as the peanut took over the role of cotton as the major crop, new problems arose. What could be done with all of those peanuts? Carver answered that question by discovering nearly 300 profitable uses for the peanut.

Soon known as the “Wizard of Tuskegee,” Carver’s first publication in 1898 was a pamphlet entitled Feeding Acorns to Livestock. It was followed by 43 other pamphlets during the following three decades. Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, written in 1942, was a wartime favorite.

Though he received many honorary doctorates, citations, medals, and praise, Carver remained indifferent to personal fortune. When asked to head the newly organized Department of Agricultural Research at Tuskegee, Carver gladly accepted and devoted his time to creative, productive scientific research studies. Whenever his work permitted, he lectured across the nation. He and Tuskegee also hosted delegations from other nations seeking solutions for agricultural problems.

Carver died quietly in his sleep in 1943 and was buried at Tuskegee next to his friend, Booker T. Washington. He directed his entire life savings to the Carver Museum and to the George Washington Carver Foundation to support young black scientists in their research.

Contributed by Sandra H. Dunn, The University of Texas at Austin


References
Edwards, L. M. 1981. George Washington Carver, scientist and symbol. New York: Oxford University Press.

Elliott, L. 1966. George Washington Carver: The man who overcame. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Holt, R. 1943. George Washington Carver. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran and Co.
Kitchens, J. W., and L. B. Kitchens, eds. 1975. Guide to the microfilm edition of the George Washington Carver papers at Tuskegee Institute. Tuskegee, AL: Tuskegee Institute

Kremer, G. R., ed. 1987. George Washington Carver: In his own words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

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