Botanist and inventor George Washington Carver was born into slavery and died as a scientific advisor to presidents and titans of industry. What happened in between was no less extraordinary.
1. HIS FIRST YEARS OF LIFE WERE TRAUMATIC.
The baby boy born to Mary and Giles, two slaves in the household of Moses and Susan Carver, in the 1860s would see tragedy before he turned two. Raiders entered the Carvers' Missouri farm and abducted Mary, her infant son George, and his sister. The Carvers’ agent searched long and hard and eventually recovered George, but Mary and the little girl were lost.
When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, the Carvers decided to adopt George and his brother and raise them as their own.
2. EDUCATION WAS IMPORTANT TO GEORGE FROM THE BEGINNING.
Susan Carver taught George to read. As he got older, she encouraged him to learn all he could. Local schools wouldn’t accept black students, so the teenage boy began traveling from classroom to classroom, exploring new subjects and eventually graduating from high school. It was in one of these schoolrooms that the boy known all his life as “Carver’s George” started calling himself George Carver instead.
3. IT WAS ALSO HARD-WON.
Colleges were as reluctant as primary schools to enroll black students. Initially accepted to Highland College in Kansas, Carver was uninvited once administrators learned of his ancestry. Undaunted, Carver decided to create his own research facility instead. He homesteaded a claim and started collecting geological samples, conducting botany experiments, and studying fine art, all on his own.
4. HIS DETERMINATION PAID OFF.
Carver’s intelligence and accomplishments were undeniable. He was admitted to Simpson College in Iowa to study art and music. His beautiful drawings of plants prompted a teacher to recommend him to the Iowa State Agricultural College. The next year, Carver became Iowa State’s first black student.
Carver thrived in academia, and completed his bachelor’s degree with his thesis, "Plants as Modified by Man," in 1894. Thrilled by the young scientist’s potential, his advisors pushed him to continue, and Carver eventually earned his master’s degree after studying plant pathology and mycology. He established his reputation as a leading botanist while teaching at his alma mater.
5. HE EARNED HIMSELF A PRETTY AWESOME JOB.
Word of Carver’s brilliance and creativity spread. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), personally invited Carver to lead its agricultural department in 1896. Washington was so determined to snag Carver’s bright mind for his school that he offered a fine lab, a high salary, and a two-room apartment. This didn’t go over well with the other faculty, who had to share rooms, but Washington believed the perks were justified by Carver's accomplishments and degree from a university that didn't usually accept African-Americans.
6. HIS MIND JUST WOULD NOT QUIT.
Carver flourished at Tuskegee. His research, while ground-breaking, was also practical: Carver was always looking for ways to help American farmers get more from their crops. As the boll weevil decimated southern cotton crops, Carver and his students began investigating uses for newer plants like sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and, of course, peanuts. In his tenure at the institute, Carver would invent more than 300 uses for peanuts alone, including chili sauce, shampoo, and glue.
7. HE’S NOT THE PEANUT BUTTER GUY.
Ironically, Carver’s best-known creation wasn’t actually his. The diets of ancient Aztec and Inca peoples included peanuts ground into a paste. Modern peanut butter can be traced back to three inventors: Marcellus Gilmore Edson, who patented peanut paste; John Harvey Kellogg of cereal fame, who created a peanut butter-making process; and Ambrose Straub, who built a peanut butter-making machine. Carver’s efforts did help popularize peanut butter, but he didn’t claim credit.
8. HE WAS APPRECIATED AS A GENIUS IN HIS OWN TIME.
Peanut butter or no, Carver’s expertise was legendary. He advised Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt on agricultural concerns, and testified before Congress in support of a peanut import tax. The Crown Prince of Sweden traveled to the U.S. to study under Carver. The scientist even shared his agricultural and nutrition expertise with Mahatma Gandhi.
His innovative mind attracted the admiration and friendship of automotive pioneer Henry Ford. The two thinkers spent several years collaborating, looking for ways to turn plants into power and military equipment. They invented peanut rubber for cannons and made progress toward soybean and peanut substitutes for gasoline.
9. HE STAYED GROUNDED.
Carver never lost sight of what mattered to him most: using his mind to help those in need. He published a long series of easy-to-read bulletins for farmers, providing tips to maximize their yield and creative uses for their crops. He even took the show on the road, driving a wagon through farm country to spread the word about sustainable farming practices that could help poor farmers survive.
10. HIS WORK CHANGED THE WORLD.
Of Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “From oppressive and crippling surroundings, George Washington Carver lifted his searching, creative mind to the ordinary peanut, and found therein extraordinary possibilities for goods and products unthinkable by minds of the past, and left for succeeding generations an inspiring example of how an individual could rise above the paralyzing conditions of circumstance.”