George Washington Carver Biography (c. 1864-1943)

botanist and inventor

George Washington Carver, an undersized, softspoken genius, achieved fame asan agricultural chemist, botanist, educator, and inventor, though he refusedto patent or capitalize on most of his innovations. His study of peanuts andpeanut products, sweet potatoes, and soybeans led to an economic bonanza forthe southern farmer by providing an alternative to cotton and tobacco as staple crops. A native of Diamond Grove, Missouri, he was born a slave. His birthdate was never recorded. When Carver was an infant he was kidnapped along with his brother Jim and their mother Mary by slave rustlers. His mother was sold, but George suffered from whooping cough and was left to die. When Carver'soriginal master sought to find his stolen slaves, the price for the sickly child immediately increased. The thieves required Carver's master to trade a three-hundred-dollar race horse for the boy's ransom. Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, George was adopted by his former owners, Moses and Sue Carver, who gave him their surname, and tried to obtain an education for him at African-American schools. From the age of six, he studied on his own, focusing on woods and wildflowers, which he enjoyed cultivating and using as subjects for his oil and water color paintings. At age ten, he moved to Neosho, Missouri, to attend a one-room school. He formed strong family ties with aAfrican-American couple, Mariah and Andy Watkins, who became his foster parents. By age thirteen, Carver migrated to Minneapolis, Kansas, obtained a highschool diploma, and worked as an independent field laborer. In an effort to further his education, he applied for and received a scholarship to Highland University, but the offer was rescinded when the university president realizedthat Carver was African-American. To avoid further constraints on his efforts, Carver had to move farther north to seek an education. As the first African-American to attend Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, he worked as a cookand earned the $12 annual tuition. At his teachers' suggestion, he advanced to Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (Iowa State University). There he concentrated his efforts in the natural sciences. He obtained hisbachelor's degree in agriculture in 1894 and joined the school's faculty as an assistant professor of botany and overseer of the greenhouse. In this capacity, he became the first African-American ever to teach at the university. Carver received his master's degree in 1896. Carver achieved so notable a namethat Booker T. Washington offered him an annual salary of $1,500 to head thenew agriculture program at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. In the school's primitive, understaffed laboratory, he made the bulk of his discoveries, such as the hybridization of short-and tall-stalk cotton. He also devotedhimself to educating farmers on crop rotation and diversification to avoid overworking their fields. Carver's dedication to the school and to agriculturewas so great that he refused lucrative offers to join the laboratories of Henry Ford and Thomas Alva Edison. To bolster farm income, Carver focused on humble plants. He created over 300 products from the peanut, including dye, shoepolish, soap, plastic , wood stain, flour, and milk and cheese substitutes.In 1921, he testified before the Congressional Ways and Means Committee concerning the need to protect American peanut growers from foreign competition. He derived 118 by-products from the sweet potato, such as syrup, starch, woodstain, and flour. Experiments with other plants produced cosmetics, breakfastcereals , fertilizer, oil, food additives, dye, paint, and medicine prototypes. He promoted uses for okra fiber and native clays; also, three fungi he discovered were named for him. Along with laboratory work, Carver involved himself in community outreach. He took his "school on wheels" into the countryside to educate illiterate rural families about scientific farming methods and food preservation. One of his most beneficial lessons was support for the tomato as versatile food for home and sale. He became a champion of recycling andwaste control, lectured on horticulture at leading universities, and wrote numerous pamphlets explaining to farmers how improved techniques could raise their standard of living. As unofficial spokesperson for African-Americans, heinfluenced newspaper publishers, liberal congressmen, and other notable people. His example became the hallmark of African-American achievement. For hiscontributions, he received honorary doctoral degrees, the Theodore Rooseveltmedal , commendation from the Edison Foundation and London's Royal Society ofArts, and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal. In 1936, Tuskegee honored him in his fortieth year of teaching as the school's most productive and prestigious staff member. Notables, including the Prince of Wales and President Theodore Roosevelt , visited him at the Institute. Unaffected by fame, Carver remained unmarried, lived frugally, and refused to commercialize his success. He never collected his teaching salary and, in fact, donated $30,000 to the George Washington Carver Foundation. As a gesture of love, he willed his estate to Tuskegee for the preservation and continuance of his work. After suffering declining health in the last months of his life, he died in his campus quarters on January 5, 1943. His epitaph characterizes his humanistic attitude toward scientific discovery: "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world. " His birthplace became a national monument. In 1940, the Carver Foundation established theCarver Memorial Museum and preserved the Tuskegee laboratory in honor of hisservice to humanity. In 1973, Carver was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans; Congress designated January 5 as George Washington Carver Day.

Recent Updates

January 19, 2005: It was announced that Carver's work would be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark at a special ceremony at Tuskegee University. The landmarks program is sponsored by the American Chemical Society (ACS) to recognize seminal historic events in chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. Paul Anderson, chairmanof the ACS Landmarks Committee said of the designation, "We are pleased to honor the work of George Washington Carver. His research on new uses for old crops demonstrates how the work of chemists can improve the quality of life." Source: EurekAlert,, January 19, 2005.

User Contributions:

Brian Hackert
I believe the details of the stolen baby George's return are a little off. Rather than Moses Carver giving the kidnappers his horse as ransom, two sources I just read say that Moses Carver hired a tracker to rescue the baby, and Carver paid the tracker with the horse.

Holt, Rackham. George Washington Carver, An American Biography. Doubleday And Co., 1950.
Bolden, Tonya. Geore Washington Carver. Abrams Books For Young Readers, 2008.

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