George Washington Carver (1864-1943) started his life as a slave and ended it as a respected and world-renowned agricultural chemist.
Born in Kansas Territory near Diamond Grove, Mo., during the bloody struggle between free-soilers and slaveholders, George Washington Carver became the kidnap victim of night riders. With his mother and brother, James, he was held for ransom; but before they could be rescued the mother died. Merely a babe in arms, Carver was ransomed for a $300 racehorse by Moses Carver, a German farmer. Thus he was orphaned and left in the custody of a white guardian from early childhood.
Carver had responsibility for his own education. His first school was in Neosho, lowa, some 9 miles from his home. Neosho had once been a Confederate capital; by now it had become the site of the Lincoln School for African American children. With James he walked there every day. His first teacher was an African American, Stephen S. Frost. He and his brother went faithfully to school for several years. Finally James tired of formal schooling and quit to become a house painter, but not George. He continued until he was 17. Then he went on to complete his high school work in Minneapolis, Kans.
Carver really wished to become an artist. His sketch of the rose Yucca gloriosa won him a first prize at the World's Columbian Exposition (1893).
Carver applied to study at the lowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts but was turned down when it was learned that he was of African heritage. He then applied to Simpson College at Indianola, lowa, where he was the second African American to be admitted. Tuition was $12 a year, but even this small amount was hard to come by. Carver raised the money by working as a cook at a hotel in Winterset, lowa.
After 3 years' attendance at Simpson College, he once again applied for admission to lowa State. He was admitted and was placed in charge of the greenhouse of the horticultural department while doing graduate work. He earned his master's degree in agriculture in 1896.
In April 1896 Carver received a unique offer from the African American educator Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Said Dr. Washington: "I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last from the position you now occupy you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up. I offer you in their place: work—hard, hard work, the task of bringing a people from degradation, poverty, and waste to full manhood. Your department exists only on paper and your laboratory will have to be in your head."
Carver accepted the challenge. He arrived at the tiny railroad station at Chehaw, Ala., on Oct. 8, 1896. In a report to Dr. Washington he wrote: "8:00 to 9:00 A.M., Agricultural Chemistry; 9:20 to 10:00 A.M., the Foundation of Colors (for painters); 10:00 to 11:00 A.M., a class of farmers. Additional hours in the afternoon. In addition I must oversee and rather imperfectly supervise seven industrial classes, scattered here and there over the grounds. I must test all seeds, examine all fertilizers, based upon an examination of soils in different plots."
Through the years Carver was gaining national and international stature. Chinese and Japanese farmers raised many unique problems for him. Questions were referred to him from Russia, India, Europe, South America. He later had to turn down a request to journey to the Soviet Union. In 1916 he was elected a member of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts in England; he went to Washington to the War Department to demonstrate his findings on the sweet potato in 1918. He was awarded the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP in 1923.
An early close friend of Carver was Henry A. Wallace; the pair knew each other for 47 years. Wallace said that Carver often took him on botanical expeditions, and it was he who first introduced Wallace to the mysteries of plant fertilizers. Carver was a shy and modest bachelor. An attack of whooping cough as a child had permanently caused him to have a high-pitched tenor voice. He considered it a high duty to attend classes and was seldom absent. In 1908 he returned to the West to visit his 96-year-old guardian, Moses Carver, and to visit the grave of his brother, James, in Missouri.
A careful and modest scientist, Carver was not without a sense of humor. When one of his students, hoping to play a trick on him, showed him a bug with wings of a fly and body of a mosquito, Carver was quick to label it "a humbug."
Carver utilized the materials at hand. He was interested in crop rotation and soil conservation. From the clay soil of Alabama he extracted a full range of dyestuffs, including a brilliant blue. He created 60 products from the pecan. From the common sweet potato he extracted a cereal coffee, a shoe polish, paste, oils—about 100 products. From the peanut he developed over 145 products. Carver suggested peanuts, pecans, and sweet potatoes replace cotton as money crops. He published all of his findings in a series of nearly 50 bulletins.
The testimony of Carver before the congressional House Ways and Means Committee in 1921 led to the passage of the Fordney-McCumber Tariff Bill of 1922. Scheduled to speak a scant 10 minutes, he was granted several time extensions because of the intense interest in his presentation. (He appeared in a greenish-blue suit many seasons old, having refused to invest in a new suit: "They want to hear what I have to say; they will not be interested in how I look.")
In 1935 Carver was chosen to collaborate with the Bureau of Plant Industry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He received the Theodore Roosevelt Medal in 1939 for distinguished achievement in science. During his lifetime Carver had made many friends. Henry Ford was his frequent host. Carver was a treasured friend of Thomas A. Edison. It was Edison who offered to make him independent with his own laboratories and an annual stipend of $50,000. Other intimates of his were Luther Burbank, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs. He was also a friend of three presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Dr. Carver had earned the salary of $125 a month from the beginning until the end of his service at Tuskegee. He might have had much more. In 1940 he gave his life-savings, $33,000, to establish the George Washington Carver Foundation at Tuskegee Institute to perpetuate research in agriculture and chemistry. He later bequeathed his entire estate to the foundation, making a total of about $60,000. He died on Jan. 5, 1943.
At the dedication of a building in his honor at Simpson College, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Nobel Prize winner, pronounced Dr. Carver to be "the least imposing celebrity the world has ever known." Dr. Carver's birthplace was made a national monument on July 14, 1953.
Further Reading on George Washington Carver
Of the many studies of Carver the best is Rackham Holt, George Washington Carver: An American Biography (1943). Also useful is Shirley Graham and George D. Lipscomb, Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist (1944).