In celebration of Black History Month, SRG and our sister brand Lorien are exploring the stories behind some of the most significant contributions made by STEM figures of black heritage. In this article, we look at the trailblazing life of George Washington Carver (c. 1864-1943), the most prominent black scientist and inventor of the first half of the 20th century.
Born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri towards the end of the American Civil War (his exact birthdate is unknown), Carver’s early life was marred by the violent structural racism of the time.
Just a week after his birth, Carver — along with his mother and sister — was kidnapped by raiders and sold in Kentucky. Of the three captives, only the young George would return to the Carver farm.
After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 abolished slavery in the United States, Carver’s former owners Moses and Susan Carver decided to raise and educate the precocious young boy. Susan taught George how to read and write, helping to spark a lifelong quest for knowledge.
Possessing a natural curiosity, Carver earned his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Kansas. He was then accepted into the nearby Highland College but denied admittance once his race became known to college administrators. Instead of attending classes, he homesteaded a claim in Beeler, Kansas, where he maintained a small conservatory of plants, flowers, and geological collections and started conducting biological experiments.
In 1888, after obtaining a $300 bank loan for education, Carver attended Simpson College in Iowa to study art and piano. Here, his art teacher soon recognised Carver’s talent for plants and flowers; encouraging him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College. When he enrolled at Iowa State in 1891, he became the college’s first black student.
Finding his calling
While at Iowa State, Carver forged a reputation as a brilliant botanist. It was this reputation that impelled Booker T. Washington — the leading African-American leader of the time — to hire Carver to run the agricultural department at the historically black Tuskegee Institute, a school founded by Washington himself.
Under Carver’s stewardship, the agricultural department at Tuskegee gained national renown. Carver and his team conducted groundbreaking research into on plant biology, primarily focusing on the development of new uses for crops including peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans, and pecans. He also helped forge a curriculum and faculty that created innovative methods of crop rotation, as well as developing alternative cash crops for poor farmers in areas heavily planted with cotton.
With heavy monoculture (reliance on a single crop) leaving many fields barren, cotton production had begun to decline in the American South by the early 20th century. Amid economic uncertainty and endemic rural poverty, Carver’s ideas on crop rotation were to prove highly influential. By planting peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, Carver realised farmers could restore nitrogen to the soil and produce higher yields.
Though these crops grow well in the climate of the South, there was little demand for them at the time. Thanks to Carver’s groundbreaking research and flurry of inventions, this changed. For struggling sharecroppers in the South, Carver’s work provided a much-needed lifeline. In the process, he revolutionised the farming industry.
In all, Carver could lay claim to inventing hundreds of products, including 300+ from peanuts (milks, plastics, dyes, cosmetics, soap, ink, paints) and 118 from sweet potatoes (flour, vinegar, rubber, molasses, glue).
Contrary to popular belief, Carver did not invent peanut butter. However, thanks to his many peanut-based innovations — as well as the "Peanut Man" moniker he was affectionately given during his lifetime — this apocryphal belief has endured to the present day.
Later life and legacy
Towards the end of his life, Carver became a leading figure in US public life as his efforts became widely recognised. In 1939, he was awarded the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture. In 1941, Time magazine even dubbed him the “Black Leonardo.”
An early proponent of environmentalism and outspoken critic of racial inequality, Carver’s pioneering work in agriculture and celebrity status transcended the virulent racism of the Jim Crow era – a remarkable achievement for the time.
Carver died after a fall on January 5th, 1943 at the age of 78. He was buried on the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute next to his old boss and friend, Booker T. Washington. His gravestone rather aptly reads:
"He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honour in being helpful to the world."
A true American icon, George Washington Carver’s extraordinary contributions improved the lives of farming families all over the US and inspired countless subsequent generations of scientists from all backgrounds. Indeed, his life stands as a testament to the transformative power of education and the burning quest for knowledge.
For more insights into the world of science, stay tuned to the SRG blog.