George Washington Carver was an American agricultural scientist whose work positively impacted farming practices in the South after the American Civil War.
Born in to slavery, Carver was the first African American to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States, and he spent much of his life working at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Though many of his experiments did not yield products used today, his theories on crop rotation and other practical farming methods improved soil conditions in the South.
Here are 10 facts about George Washington Carver.
1. George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Missouri
Though his exact birthdate is unknown, it is believed Carver was born in the early 1860s, potentially in 1864. He was enslaved from birth by Moses Carver in Diamond, Missouri. During the war, Carver and his family were kidnapped by slave raiders, and when the infant Carver was found, he was alone. Moses Carver raised the boy until he left the farm to pursue education, eventually earning a high school diploma.
2. Carver was the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree
Upon completing high school, Carver obtained a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from what is now Iowa State University in 1894. There, he gained a reputation as an excellent botanist and became the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree in the United States.
In 1896, he received a master of science in agriculture as well. After graduation, he was offered a teaching position at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama.
3. Carver remained at Tuskegee Institute for the remainder of his life
When Carver finished his master’s programme, he had many avenues for employment but accepted an offer at Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington’s new vocational school for African Americans. Washington provided him with two rooms – one for his plants – and a higher salary than other employees, but the investment was worthwhile, as Carver remained at Tuskegee for the rest of his life.
Carver was not much interested in teaching and preferred to be researching, though he was admired by his students. It was at Tuskegee that Carver was able to experiment with the farming methods for which he would become known.
4. Carver’s encouragement of crop rotation improved soil conditions
When he moved to Alabama, Carver was shocked by the ways in which growing cotton had depleted the landscape. After the war, many African Americans in the south were granted portions of white landowner’s farms and were allowed to work the land in exchange for a cut of the crop. As tenant farmers, one bad crop year could thrust them into serious debt. Because of this, Carver pivoted his focus and began encouraging self-sustaining farming practices, primarily crop rotation, to protect the soil.
By focusing on growing a single crop – cotton – for so many years, the soil had been left depleted of nutrients. Carver recommended growing peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans in these nitrogen-depleted fields, as they grew in different seasons and produced their own nitrogen that would replenish the soil.
5. He created a commercial need for peanuts and sweet potatoes
Once Carver convinced farmers to employ crop rotation methods, there came to be a surplus of peanuts and sweet potatoes, which at the time were not staples of the American diet. To resolve the issue and increase demand, Carver detailed an estimated 300 ways to use peanuts to showcase its variability. Some uses for peanuts included milk, oil, cosmetics and antiseptics.
Carver’s goal was not to create the best products, and many of his suggested uses for peanuts were not wholly original; his purpose was to provide information and recipes to poor farmers that required little resources but would improve their living conditions. His uses for peanuts especially took off.
6. Carver convinced Congress to impose a tariff on foreign peanuts
In an effort to protect African American farmers as they grew peanuts, Carver travelled to Washington DC to lobby Congress. There, he convinced them to pass a tariff on foreign peanuts, meaning farmers would be protected growing this new crop. He was then dubbed the ‘Peanut Man’, and his success in Washington launched him to celebrity status. He even met with Mahatma Gandhi to discuss nutrition in developing nations.
7. Carver did not invent peanut butter
It is often stated that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, but that is false. By the time Carver published his practical bulletin How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption in 1916, early versions of peanut butter had already been developed. Other notable figures credited with the invention of peanut butter include Marcellus Gilmore Edson and John Harvey Kellogg, though variations of grinding peanuts into paste date back to Aztec and Inca civilizations.
8. Carver brought his teachings on the road through the Jessup Wagon
As he developed his farming methods, Carver realized he needed to meet farmers in the field. With funding from a Tuskegee donor, he brought a mobile classroom, the Jessup Wagon, on the road to reach more farmers about soil chemistry. In the first summer of operations in 1906, he reached 2,000 people a month. Further, he distributed bulletins freely to farmers that detailed his findings and other practical information, including recipes.
9. Carver was an early promoter of sustainability
Though he remains most known for his work with peanuts, this was not the effort he was most proud of. Carver was motivated to find new ways to work the land so that African American farmers could have a better quality of life. He was focused on how the health of the land impacted the health of people. He believed humans are interconnected with land, and so his methods for sustainable farming – like crop rotation – were developed to improve people’s connection to the land while simultaneously improving the quality of the earth.
10. Carver preferred to let his work speak for itself
Carver largely stayed out of politics and rarely corrected the myths and exaggerations published about him because he was not concerned with celebrity. His reluctance to speak on racial equality sometimes earned him criticism from those advocating for more radical change. However, he was dedicated to improving the quality of life for farming families – many of whom were African American.
After Carver’s death, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation to erect a monument in his honour, the first granted to an African American. The legacy of the ‘Peanut Man’ lives on through his sustainability and farming methods today.