When most people hear the name George Washington Carver, they immediately think, “Oh, he was that famous African-American inventor.” But, the truth is, he was a famous American inventor whose ideas changed society much like Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford. Though renowned for developing innovative uses for a variety of agricultural crops such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, Carver accomplished much more in his life. He was Iowa State University’s first African American student, and was a skillful musician, artist, and orator. He went on to invent hundreds of products from plants and is credited with changing the South’s agricultural economy from completely cotton and tobacco dependent to a multiple-crop producer. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP; he was inducted into the Royal Society of Arts in London; and had a national monument dedicated to him by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. So, let’s take a look at the man who not only broke racial barriers, but was a great American inventor as well.
George Washington Carver was born on his uncle’s farm in Missouri in 1864. His very early life was traumatic: his father died before he was born, and he and his mother were kidnapped by Confederate night-raiders when he was just a baby. When the Civil War ended, his uncle found him and brought him back to the farm, though Carver’s mother was never found. Carver’s uncle and aunt raised him and his brother from that point forward. When he was about twelve years old, Carver decided he wanted to attend school. Unfortunately, because of segregation, there were no schools that accepted black students close to the farm, so he had to leave his aunt and uncle’s home and travel to southwest Missouri to find a school he could attend. There, he studied diligently, worked as a farm hand to support himself, and went on to attend high school in Minneapolis, Kansas.
Carver had applied to many colleges for years, but was rejected because of racial barriers. While he waited to be accepted, he used his cultivation skills to start a small conservatory of plants and flowers. It was his love of plants and flowers that would guide him the rest of his life. Carver finally gained acceptance to a small art college when he was in his late twenties. Since the school had no science classes, Carver had to study piano. But, soon after that, in 1891, he was able to transfer to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study botany—and he became the first African American student ever admitted to the college. He received both a BS and a Master’s degree in agriculture from Iowa State, and because of his proficiency in plant breeding, Carver was appointed to the faculty, becoming Iowa State’s first African American faculty member as well.
While attending his graduate classes and teaching undergrads, Carver was also becoming an expert in plant and fungus pathology. He published several articles on his work, which earned him respect throughout the nation. In 1896, he completed his master’s degree and was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute as the Director of Agriculture. It was at Tuskegee that Carver developed his crop rotation method, a method to alternate the planting of soil-depleting crops, like cotton, with soil-enriching crops, such as peanuts, peas, soybeans, sweet potatoes, and pecans.
Through Carver’s rotation system, crops flourished—especially peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans. This led him to develop many alternate uses for these plants, although the popular story of him inventing peanut butter is actually not true. Here are a few of the innovative things he did create from these crops: adhesives, axle grease, fuel briquettes (think biofuel), ink, linoleum, metal polish, paper, plastic, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, and wood stain. All in all, Carver’s work resulted in the creation of over 300 products from peanuts, more than 100 products from sweet potatoes, and hundreds more from a dozen other plants native to the South. He also produced 500 different shades of dye; and, in 1927, he invented a process for producing paints and stains from soybeans.
Despite the hundreds of things he created, Carver was an extremely altruistic man and really never tried to personally benefit from his work, financially or otherwise. He only filed for three patents in his entire life, one for a cosmetic and the other two for paints. All of his other innovations he freely gave to the world through open publications. He is credited with saying: “How can I sell them (his ideas) to someone else? God gave them to me.” In 1940, Carver donated his life savings to establish the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee, with the mandate that it should continue his research in agriculture. Inscribed on the tombstone of this remarkably selfless man is the epitaph: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”