Black History Month – Honoring George Washington Carver
Continuing our series of spotlighting Black inventors, George Washington Carver was an American agricultural scientist and inventor and was the first Black person introduced into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His induction was based not only on Carver’s work in botany, but also for two patents he was granted in 1925 and 1927.
George Washington Carver was born an enslaved person in 1864. During his childhood, he took an interest in plants. He became known as the “the plant doctor” to local farmers due to his ability to discern how to improve the health of their gardens, fields and orchards.
After graduating from high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, in 1888, Carver was accepted to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he studied art and piano. His art teacher encouraged him to study botany after recognizing his talent for planting flowers and plants. Carver transferred to Iowa State Agriculture School (now Iowa State University) where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1894 – the first awarded to a Black person. His mentors were so impressed with his work they asked him to stay on as faculty while earning his Master’s Degree, which he obtained in 1896. Carver taught as the first Black faculty member of Iowa State. He went on to be a faculty member at The Tuskegee Institute where he taught for 47 years.
Carver’s most celebrated contributions to society were his techniques to improve soils depleted by repeated plantings of cotton. Together with other agricultural experts, he urged farmers to restore nitrogen to their soils by practicing systematic crop rotation: alternating cotton crops with plantings of sweet potatoes or legumes, such as peanuts, soybeans and cowpeas. Carver’s method had an unintended consequence: a surplus of peanuts and other non-cotton products, so Carver set to work on finding alternative uses for these products. For example, he invented numerous products from sweet potatoes, including edible products like flour and vinegar and non-food items such as stains, dyes, paints and writing ink. In all, he developed more than 300 food, industrial and commercial products from peanuts, including milk, Worcestershire sauce, punches, cooking oils, salad oil, paper, cosmetics, soaps and wood stains. He also experimented with peanut-based medicines, such as antiseptics, laxatives and goiter medications.
In the last stage of his life, Carver kept his focus on helping people. He traveled in the south, promoting integration, and to India to discuss nutrition in developing nations with Mahatma Gandhi. Among Carver’s many honors were his election to Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (London) in 1916 and his receipt of the Spingarn Medal in 1923.
Soon after Carver’s death in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation for Carver to receive his own monument, an honor previously granted only to presidents Washington and Lincoln.