George Washington Carver (January 1864 - January 5, 1943), was an American scientist, botanist, educator and inventor.
The day and year of his birth are unknown; he is believed to have been born before slavery was abolished in Missouri in
Much of Carver's fame is based on his research into and promotion of alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts and
sweet potatoes. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of
other products to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained
105 food recipes that used peanuts. He also created or disseminated about 100 products made from peanuts that were
useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin.
In the Reconstruction South, an agricultural monoculture of cotton depleted the soil, and in the early 20th century the
boll weevil destroyed much of the cotton crop. Carver's work on peanuts was intended to provide an alternative
In addition to his work on agricultural extension education for purposes of advocacy of sustainable agriculture and
appreciation of plants and nature, Carver's important accomplishments also included improvement of racial relations,
mentoring children, poetry, painting, and religion. He served as an example of the importance of hard work, a positive
attitude, and a good education. His humility, humanitarianism, good nature, frugality, and rejection of economic
materialism also have been admired widely.
One of his most important roles was in undermining, through the fame of his achievements and many talents, the
widespread stereotype of the time that the black race was intellectually inferior to the white race. In 1941, Time
magazine dubbed him a "Black Leonardo", a reference to the Renaissance Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci. To
commemorate his life and inventions, George Washington Carver Recognition Day is celebrated on January 5, the
anniversary of Carver's death.
Carver was born in Diamond Grove, Newton County, Marion Township, near Crystal Place, now known as Diamond, Missouri,
on or around July 12, 1865. His slave owner, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant who had purchased George's
mother, Mary, and father, Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for seven hundred dollars. Carver had 10
sisters and a brother, all of whom died prematurely.
When George was only a week old, George, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas.
George's brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. They sold the slaves in Kentucky, a common practice.
Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but only George was found. Moses negotiated with the raiders and swapped
a racehorse for the infant's return, and rewarded Bentley.
After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife, Susan, raised George and his older brother, James, as their own
children. They encouraged George Carver to continue his intellectual pursuits, and "Aunt Susan" taught him the basics
of reading and writing.
Since black people were not allowed at the school in Diamond Grove, and he had received news that there was a school
for black people ten miles (16 km) south in Neosho, he resolved to go there at once. To his dismay, when he reached the
town, the school had been closed for the night. As he had nowhere to stay, he slept in a nearby barn. By his own
account, the next morning he met a kind woman, Mariah Watkins, from whom he wished to rent a room. When he identified
himself as "Carver's George," as he had done his whole life, she replied that from now on his name was "George Carver".
George liked this lady very much, and her words, "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give
your learning back to the people", made a great impression on him.
At the age of thirteen, due to his desire to attend the academy there, he relocated to the home of another foster
family in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing the beating to death of a black man at the hands of a group of white
men, George left Fort Scott. He subsequently attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis
High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
Over the next five years, he sent several letters to colleges and was finally accepted at Highland College in Highland,
Kansas. He traveled to the college, but he was rejected when they discovered that he was an African American. In August
1886, Carver traveled by wagon with J. F. Beeler from Highland to Eden Township in Ness County, Kansas. He homesteaded
a claim near Beeler, where he maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. With
no help from domestic animals he plowed 17 acres (69,000 m2) of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden
produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery. He also did odd jobs in town and worked as a
In early 1888, Carver obtained a $3000 loan at the Bank of Ness City, stating he wanted to further his education, and
by June of that year he had left the area.
In 1890, Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd,
recognized Carver's talent for painting flowers and plants and convinced him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural
College in Ames. He transferred there in 1891, the first black student and later the first black faculty member. In
order to avoid confusion with another George Carver in his classes, he began to use the name George Washington
At the end of his undergraduate career in 1894, recognizing Carver's potential, Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel convinced
Carver to stay at Iowa State for his master's degree. Carver then performed research at the Iowa Agriculture and Home
Economics Experiment Station under Pammel from 1894 to his graduation in 1896. It is his work at the experiment station
in plant pathology and mycology that first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist.
At Tuskegee with Booker T. Washington
In 1896, Carver was invited to lead the Agriculture Department at the five-year-old Tuskegee Normal and Industrial
Institute, later Tuskegee University, by its founder, Booker T. Washington. Carver accepted the position, and remained
there for 47 years, teaching former slaves farming techniques for self-sufficiency.
In response to Washington's directive to bring education to farmers, Carver designed a mobile school, called a "Jesup
wagon" after the New York financier Morris Ketchum Jesup, who provided funding.
Carver had numerous problems at Tuskegee before he became famous. Carver's perceived arrogance, his higher-than-normal
salary and the two rooms he received for his personal use were resented by other faculty. Single faculty members
normally bunked two to a room. One of Carver's duties was to administer the Agricultural Experiment Station farms. He
was expected to produce and sell farm products to make a profit. He soon proved to be a poor administrator. In 1900,
Carver complained that the physical work and the letter-writing his agricultural work required were both too much for
In 1902, Booker T. Washington invited Frances Benjamin Johnston, a nationally famous female photographer, to Tuskegee.
Carver and Nelson Henry, a Tuskegee graduate, accompanied the attractive white woman to the town of Ramer. Several
white citizens thought Henry was improperly associating with a white woman. Someone fired three pistol shots at Henry,
and he fled. Mobs prevented him from returning. Carver considered himself fortunate to escape alive.
In 1904, a committee reported that Carver's reports on the poultry yard were exaggerated, and Washington criticized
Carver about the exaggerations. Carver replied to Washington "Now to be branded as a liar and party to such hellish
deception it is more than I can bear, and if your committee feel that I have willfully lied or [was] party to such lies
as were told my resignation is at your disposal." In 1910, Carver submitted a letter of resignation in response to a
reorganization of the agriculture programs. Carver again threatened to resign in 1912 over his teaching assignment.
Carver submitted a letter of resignation in 1913, with the intention of heading up an experiment station elsewhere. He
also threatened to resign in 1913 and 1914 when he did not get a summer teaching assignment. In each case, Washington
smoothed things over. It seemed that Carver's wounded pride prompted most of the resignation threats, especially the
last two, because he did not need the money from summer work.
In 1911, Washington wrote a lengthy letter to Carver complaining that Carver did not follow orders to plant certain
crops at the experiment station. He also refused Carver's demands for a new laboratory and research supplies for
Carver's exclusive use and for Carver to teach no classes. He complimented Carver's abilities in teaching and original
research but bluntly remarked on his poor administrative skills, "When it comes to the organization of classes, the
ability required to secure a properly organized and large school or section of a school, you are wanting in ability.
When it comes to the matter of practical farm managing which will secure definite, practical, financial results, you
are wanting again in ability." Also in 1911, Carver complained that his laboratory was still without the equipment
promised 11 months earlier. At the same time, Carver complained of committees criticizing him and that his "nerves will
not stand" any more committee meetings.
Despite their clashes, Booker T. Washington praised Carver in the 1911 book My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My
Experience. Washington called Carver "one of the most thoroughly scientific men of the Negro race with whom I am
acquainted." Like most later Carver biographies, it also contained exaggerations. It inaccurately claimed that as a
young boy Carver "proved to be such a weak and sickly little creature that no attempt was made to put him to work and
he was allowed to grow up among chickens and other animals around the servants' quarters, getting his living as best he
could." Carver wrote elsewhere that his adoptive parents, the Carvers, were "very kind" to him.
Booker T. Washington died in 1915. His successor made fewer demands on Carver. From 1915 to 1923, Carver's major focus
was compiling existing uses and proposing new uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes, pecans, and other crops. This work and
especially his promotion of peanuts for the peanut growers association and before Congress eventually made him the most
famous African-American of his time.
Rise to fame
Carver had an interest in helping poor Southern farmers who were working low-quality soils that had been depleted of
nutrients by repeated plantings of cotton crops. He and other agricultural cognoscenti 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) that were also sources of protein. Following the crop
rotation practice resulted in improved cotton yields and gave farmers new foods and alternative cash crops. In order to
train farmers to successfully rotate crops and cultivate the new foods, Carver developed an agricultural extension
program for Alabama that was similar to the one at Iowa State. In addition, he founded an industrial research
laboratory where he and assistants worked to popularize use of the new plants by developing hundreds of applications
for them through original research and also by promoting recipes and applications that they collected from others.
Carver distributed his information as agricultural bulletins. (See Carver bulletins below.)
Much of Carver's fame is related to the hundreds of plant products he popularized. After Carver's death, lists were
created of the plant products Carver compiled or originated. Such lists enumerate about 300 applications for peanuts
and 118 for sweet potatoes, although 73 of the 118 were dyes. He made similar investigations into uses for cowpeas,
soybeans, and pecans. Carver did not write down formulas for most of his novel plant products so they could not be made
Until 1921, Carver was not widely known for his agricultural research. However, he was known in Washington, D.C.
President Theodore Roosevelt publicly admired his work. James Wilson, a former Iowa state dean and teacher of Carver's,
was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1897 to 1913. Henry Cantwell Wallace, U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1921 to
1924, was one of Carver's teachers at Iowa State. Carver was a friend of Wallace's son, Henry A. Wallace, also an Iowa
State graduate. The younger Wallace served as U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1933 to 1940 and as Franklin Delano
Roosevelt's vice president from 1941 to 1945.
In 1916 Carver was made a member of the Royal Society of Arts in England, one of only a handful of Americans at that
time to receive this honor. However, Carver's promotion of peanuts gained him the most fame.
In 1919, Carver wrote to a peanut company about the great potential he saw for his new peanut milk. Both he and the
peanut industry seemed unaware that in 1917 William Melhuish had secured patent #1,243,855 for a milk substitute made
from peanuts and soybeans. Despite reservations about his race, the peanut industry invited him as a speaker to their
1920 convention. He discussed "The Possibilities of the Peanut" and exhibited 145 peanut products.
By 1920, U.S. peanut farmers were being undercut with imported peanuts from the Republic of China. White peanut farmers
and processors came together in 1921 to plead their cause before a Congressional committee hearings on a tariff. Having
already spoken on the subject at the convention of the United Peanut Associations of America, Carver was elected to
speak in favor of a peanut tariff before the Ways and Means Committee of the United States House of Representatives.
Carver was a novel choice because of U.S. racial segregation. On arrival, Carver was mocked by surprised Southern
congressmen, but he was not deterred and began to explain some of the many uses for the peanut. Initially given ten
minutes to present, the now spellbound committee extended his time again and again. The committee rose in applause as
he finished his presentation, and the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922 included a tariff on imported peanuts. Carver's
presentation to Congress made him famous, while his intelligence, eloquence, amiability, and courtesy delighted the
Life while famous
During the last two decades of his life, Carver seemed to enjoy his celebrity status. He was often to be found on the
road promoting Tuskegee, peanuts, and racial harmony. Although he only published six agricultural bulletins after 1922,
he published articles in peanut industry journals and wrote a syndicated newspaper column, "Professor Carver's Advice".
Business leaders came to seek his help, and he often responded with free advice. Three American presidents Theodore
Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt met with him, and the Crown Prince of Sweden studied with him for
In 1923, Carver received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, awarded annually for outstanding achievement. From 1923 to
1933, Carver toured white Southern colleges for the Commission on Interracial Cooperation.
Carver was famously criticized in the November 20, 1924, New York Times article "Men of Science Never Talk That Way."
The Times considered Carver's statements that God guided his research inconsistent with a scientific approach. The
criticism garnered much sympathy for Carver, as many Christians viewed it as an attack on religion.
In 1928, Simpson College bestowed on Carver an honorary doctorate. For a 1929 book on Carver, Raleigh H. Merritt
contacted him. Merritt wrote "At present not a great deal has been done to utilize Dr. Carver's discoveries
commercially. He says that he is merely scratching the surface of scientific investigations of the possibilities of the
peanut and other Southern products." Yet, in 1932 professor of literature James Saxon Childers wrote that Carver and
his peanut products were almost solely responsible for the rise in U.S. peanut production after the boll weevil
devastated the American cotton crop beginning about 1892. Childer's 1932 article on Carver, "A Boy Who Was Traded for a
Horse", in The American Magazine, and its 1937 reprint in Reader's Digest, did much to establish this Carver myth.
Other major magazines and newspapers of the time also exaggerated Carver's impact on the peanut industry.
From 1933 to 1935, Carver was largely occupied with work on peanut oil massages for treating infantile paralysis
(polio). Carver received tremendous media attention and visitations from parents and their sick children; however, it
was ultimately found that peanut oil was not the miracle cure it was made out to be it was the massages which provided
the benefits. Carver had been a trainer for the Iowa State football team and was skilled as a masseur. From 1935 to
1937, Carver participated in the USDA Disease Survey. Carver had specialized in plant diseases and mycology for his
In 1937, Carver attended two chemurgy conferences. He met Henry Ford at the Dearborn, Michigan, conference, and they
became close friends. Also in 1937, Carver's health declined. Time magazine reported in 1941 that Henry Ford installed
an elevator for Carver because his doctor told him not to climb the 19 stairs to his room. In 1942, the two men denied
that they were working together on a solution to the wartime rubber shortage. Carver also did work with soy, which he
and Ford considered as an alternative fuel.
In 1939, Carver received the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Southern Agriculture enscribed "to a
scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race as well as the black." In 1940,
Carver established the George Washington Carver Foundation at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1941, The George Washington
Carver Museum was dedicated at the Tuskegee Institute. In 1942, Henry Ford built a replica of Carver's slave cabin at
the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn as a tribute to his friend. Also in 1942, Ford dedicated the
George Washington Carver Laboratory in Dearborn.
Romantic Life and Austin Curtis Jr.
Little information has survived about Carver's romantic life, but he has come to be an icon of the gay community. Such
a fact is testified to by his inclusion in the encyclopedia glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture and books such as Out in All Directions: The Almanac of Gay and Lesbian America. Carver
never married or expressed interest in dating women, and rumors circulated about his sexuality at Tuskegee Institute
while he was an employee. In particular, his enjoyment of giving therapeutic peanut oil massages to and engaging in
horseplay with handsome men was seen as unusual. Late in his career, Carver established a life and research partnership
with another male scientist--Austin W. Curtis, Jr.. The two men kept details of their lives discreet, and as such
historians know little about how these men understood their relationship. Nonetheless, the fact that Carver willed his
assets to this man (consisting of royalties from an authorized biography by Rackham Holt) testifies to the importance
of each other in their lives. After the death of his partner in 1943, Curtis was fired from Tuskegee Institute. He left
Alabama and resettled in Detroit, where he used the knowledge of peanuts he had gained from Carver to manufacture and
sell peanut-based personal care products.
Death and legacy
Upon returning home one day, Carver took a bad fall down a flight of stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who
took him to a hospital. Carver died January 5, 1943, at the age of 78 from complications (anemia) resulting from this
fall. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University. Due to his frugality, Carver's life savings
totaled $60,000, all of which he donated in his last years and at his death to the Carver Museum and to the George
Washington Carver Foundation.
On his grave was written, He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in
being helpful to the world.
Before and after his death, there was a movement to establish a U.S. national monument to Carver. However, because of
World War II such non-war expenditures were banned by presidential order. Missouri senator Harry S. Truman sponsored a
bill anyway. In a committee hearing on the bill, one supporter argued that "The bill is not simply a momentary pause on
the part of busy men engaged in the conduct of the war, to do honor to one of the truly great Americans of this
country, but it is in essence a blow against the Axis, it is in essence a war measure in the sense that it will further
unleash and release the energies of roughly 15,000,000 Negro people in this country for full support of our war
effort." The bill passed in both houses without a single vote against.
On July 14, 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National
Monument west-southwest of Diamond, Missouri an area where Carver had spent time in his childhood. This was the first
national monument dedicated to an African-American and also the first to a non-President. At this 210-acre (0.8 km2)
national monument, there is a bust of Carver, a -mile nature trail, a museum, the 1881 Moses Carver house, and the
Carver cemetery. Due to a variety of delays, the national monument was not opened until July 1953.
In December 1947, a fire broke out in the Carver Museum, and much of the collection was damaged from flames, heat,
smoke, and water. Time Magazine reported that all but three of the 48 Carver paintings at the museum were destroyed.
His best-known painting, which was displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1898 in Chicago, depicts a yucca
and cactus. This canvas survived, but blistering and smoke damage marred the surface. It remains on display in the
museum, along with several of his other paintings, having undergone conservation. Carver appeared on U.S.
commemorative stamps in 1948 and 1998, and he was depicted on a commemorative half dollar coin from 1951 to 1954. Two
ships, the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver and the nuclear submarine USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656)
were named in his honor.
In 1977, Carver was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1990, Carver was inducted into the National
Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1994, Iowa State University awarded Carver Doctor of Humane Letters. In 2000, Carver was a
charter inductee in the USDA Hall of Heroes as the "Father of Chemurgy".
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed George Washington Carver on his list of 100 Greatest African
In 2005, Carver's research at the Tuskegee Institute was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the
American Chemical Society. On February 15, 2005, an episode of Modern Marvels included scenes from within Iowa State
University's Food Sciences Building and about Carver's work. In 2005, the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis,
Missouri, opened a George Washington Carver garden in his honor, which includes a lifesize statue of him.
Many institutions honor George Washington Carver to this day, particularly the American public school system. Dozens of
elementary schools and high schools are named after him. National Basketball Association star David Robinson and his
wife, Valerie, founded an academy named after Carver; it opened on September 17, 2001, in San Antonio, Texas.
George Washington Carver reputedly discovered three hundred uses for peanuts and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans and
sweet potatoes. Among the listed items that he suggested to southern farmers to help them economically were adhesives,
axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes (a biofuel), ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise,
meat tenderizer, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder
and wood stain. Three patents (one for cosmetics; patent number 1,522,176, and two for paints and stains; patent
numbers 1,541,478 and 1,632,365) were issued to George Washington Carver in the years 1925 to 1927; however, they were
not commercially successful in the end . Aside from these patents and some recipes for food, he left no formulae or
procedures for making his products. He did not keep a laboratory notebook.
It is a common misconception that Carver's research on products that could be made by small farmers for their own use
led to commercial successes that revolutionized Southern agriculture, but these products were intended as adequate
replacements for commercial products that were outside the budget of the small one-horse farmer. Carver's work to apply
the scientific method to sustain small farmers and to provide them with the resources to be as independent of the cash
economy as possible foreshadowed the "appropriate technology" work of E.F. Schumacher.
Dennis Keeney, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, wrote in the
Leopold Letter newsletter:
Carver worked on improving soils, growing crops with low inputs, and using species that fixed nitrogen (hence, the work
on the cowpea and the peanut). Carver wrote in The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South: "The virgin fertility
of our soils and the vast amount of unskilled labor have been more of a curse than a blessing to agriculture. This
exhaustive system for cultivation, the destruction of forest, the rapid and almost constant decomposition of organic
matter, have made our agricultural problem one requiring more brains than of the North, East or West."
Carver did market a few of his peanut products. The Carver Penol Company sold a mixture of creosote and peanuts as a
patent medicine for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. Other ventures were The Carver Products Company and the
Carvoline Company. Carvoline Antiseptic Hair Dressing was a mix of peanut oil and lanolin. Carvoline Rubbing Oil was a
peanut oil for massages.
Sweet potato products
Next to peanuts, Carver is most associated with sweet potato products. In his 1922 sweet potato bulletin Carver listed
a few dozen recipes "many of which I have copied verbatim from Bulletin No. 129, U. S. Department of
The list of Carver's sweet potato inventions compiled from Carver's records includes 73 dyes, 17 wood fillers, 14
candies, 5 library pastes, 5 breakfast foods, 4 starches, 4 flours, and 3 molasseses. There are also listings for
vinegar and spiced vinegar, dry coffee and instant coffee, candy, after-dinner mints, orange drops, and lemon
During his more than four decades at Tuskegee, Carver's official published work consisted mainly of 44 practical
bulletins for farmers. His first bulletin in 1898 was on feeding acorns to farm animals. His final bulletin in 1943 was
about the peanut. He also published six bulletins on sweet potatoes, five on cotton, and four on cowpeas. Some other
individual bulletins dealt with alfalfa, wild plum, tomato, ornamental plants, corn, poultry, dairying, hogs,
preserving meats in hot weather, and nature study in schools.
His most popular bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, was first
published in 1916 and was reprinted many times. It gave a short overview of peanut crop production and contained a list
of recipes from other agricultural bulletins, cookbooks, magazines, and newspapers, such as the Peerless Cookbook, Good
Housekeeping, and Berry's Fruit Recipes. Carver's was far from the first American agricultural bulletin devoted to
peanuts, but his bulletins did seem to be more popular and widespread than previous ones.
Photograph was taken in 1906 by Frances Benjamin Johnston and was Hand Oil Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers.