George Washington Carver was born into slavery on a farm near Diamond, Missouri. Although the exact date of his birth is not known, it is believed to have been January or June of 1864. Despite being enslaved as a young man, Carver went on to become known as a major American inventor, especially in the development of peanut products.
But was he the father of American agricultural science?
Agricultural sciences are sciences dealing with food and fiber production and processing. They include the technologies of soil cultivation, crop cultivation and harvesting, animal production, and the processing of plant and animal products for human consumption and use, according to Britannica.
Carver’s research did impact American agricultural science so much so that upon his death, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent this message, “All mankind are the beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere.”
He developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. The path for him to become an agricultural scientist was complex.
A white farm owner and slave owner named Moses Carver bought George Carver’s mother, Mary, when she was 13 years old. Although Carver was reportedly against slavery, he needed help with his 240-acre farm. When Carver was an infant, he, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped from the Carver farm during the Civil War era and resold in Kentucky, according to Britannica. Carver tried to retrieve them, but was only able to find George, who was paid for with one of Moses’ horses.
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But George was frail and unable to do farm work. Moses and his wife taught him to read and to cook. He instead did indoor work such as laundry and cooking. It was at this time he became interested in plants and their medicinal properties.
At age 11, Carver left the farm to attend an all-Black school nearby. He moved to Kansas about two years later, and put himself through school. He went on to graduate from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas, in 1880 and was accepted to Highland College in Kansas (today’s Highland Community College). He was later rejected when the school’s administration learned he was Black. He later attended Simpson College, a Methodist school.
Initially, Carver studied art and piano but was encouraged Carver to apply to the Iowa State Agricultural School (now Iowa State University) to study botany.
In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree, according to History.com. He was asked to stay on for graduate studies.
In 1896, Carver earned his Master of Agriculture degree. Booker T. Washington (whose last name George would later add to his own) of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) hired Carver to head up the new agricultural school. Carver worked at Tuskegee Institute for the rest of his life, remaining there for 47 years.
Dr. Carver discovered more than 300 uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. His innovations with the peanut helped save the economy of the southern part of the U.S. as they boosted peanut farming and sales, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
Through separation of the fats, oils, gums, resins and sugars, Carver discovered many uses for the peanut. According to the National Peanut Board, “food products ranged from peanut lemon punch, chili sauce, caramel, peanut sausage, mayonnaise and coffee. Cosmetics included face powder, shampoo, shaving cream and hand lotion. Insecticides, glue, charcoal, rubber, nitroglycerine, plastics and axle grease are just a few of the many valuable peanut products discovered by Dr. Carver.”
Dr. Carver died in 1943, and is buried on the campus at Tuskegee.
Famous scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, a faculty member, greeted President Franklin D. Roosevelt when the latter arrived at Tuskegee, Alabama, on March 30, 1939. (AP Photo)