George Washington Carver: The Peanut Man
George Washington Carver was likely born in January or June of 1864 to Mary and Giles, an enslaved couple owned by Moses Carver, in Diamond, Missouri, during the Civil War. Carver was kidnapped from the Carver farm by raiders from the adjacent state of Arkansas a week after his birth, along with his sister and mother. Later, the three were sold in Kentucky. Only the baby Carver was found and returned to Missouri by an agent for Moses Carver. Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised George and his brother James as their own children and taught them to read and write.
James abandoned his studies to work in the fields with Moses. On the other hand, George was a frail and weak youngster who couldn't help with such chores; instead, Susan taught him to cook, repair, embroider, do laundry, and garden, as well as make simple herbal medicines. As a result, George became interested in plants and began experimenting with natural insecticides, fungicides, and soil conditioners. Local farmers began to refer to George as "the plant doctor" because he could advise them on how to improve the health of their garden plants.
Carver left the farm at 11 to attend an all-Black school in the adjacent town of Neosho. Andrew and Mariah Watkins, a childless Black couple, took him in in exchange for help with household work. Mariah, a midwife and nurse, shared her extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs and her deep faith with Carver. Carver paid for a large portion of his education by working in the kitchen of a nearby hotel. In 1880, he graduated from Minneapolis High School and set his sights on college. He was accepted at the all-white college but was later turned down when the administration discovered he was Black. Later he enrolled at Simpson College, a Methodist college that accepted all qualified students.
Initially, Carver studied art and music to become a teacher, but one of his professors, Etta Budd, was doubtful of a Black man working as an artist. So instead, Budd encouraged Carver to apply to the Iowa State Agricultural School to study botany after learning about his interests in plants and flowers. Carver became the first African American to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894. Carver's teachers were impressed with his research on fungal infections in soybean plants and invited him to carry on for graduate studies. Carver trained at the Iowa State Experimental Station under renowned mycologist L.H. Pammel, refining his expertise in identifying and treating plant diseases.
Carver acquired his Master of Agriculture degree in 1896 and immediately received several offers, the most appealing of which came from Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington convinced Tuskegee's trustees to establish an agricultural school and invited Carver as a faculty. Carver accepted the invitation and would spend the remainder of his life at Tuskegee Institute. Carver was adamant about using his skills to assist poor farmers in the rural South. He started by presenting the concept of crop rotation.
Carver chose peanuts for the Tuskegee experimental fields because it was an easy crop to grow and had great nitrogen fixation properties to repair soil depleted by cotton cultivation. In addition, he taught former slaves turned sharecroppers about soil chemistry by inventing the Jessup Wagon, a horse-drawn classroom and laboratory for demonstrating soil chemistry. Farmers were overjoyed with the vast cotton crops produced by the cotton/peanut rotation but were less thrilled with the massive surplus of peanuts that accumulated and began to decay in local storehouses. Carver heard the complaints and went into his laboratory for a week, developing various new things that might be made from peanuts.
The peanut market skyrocketed when he presented these products to the public through simple pamphlets. Carver is now credited for conserving the rural South's agricultural industry. Carver invented around 300 peanut-based items during his time at Tuskegee, including paste, flour, paper, insulation, soap, wallboard, wood stains, shaving cream, and skin lotion. In addition, he experimented with peanut-based treatments such as antiseptics, laxatives, and goitre medications.
Carver spoke before the Ways and Means Committee of the United States House of Representatives in 1921 on behalf of the peanut business seeking tariff relief. He outlined the enormous range of products that might be manufactured from peanuts, earning him a standing ovation and convincing the committee to accept a highly protected tariff for the common legume. He became known as "The Peanut Man" after that.
Carver was a modest celebrity for the latter two decades of his life, but his main concentration was always on helping people. He travelled to the South to promote racial tolerance and flew to India to meet with Mahatma Gandhi to discuss nutrition in developing countries. He also sent public bulletins till the year of his death. Some bulletins reported on research findings, while others were more practical, providing farmers with agricultural instructions, science for instructors, and recipes for homemakers. When the polio virus raged in America in the mid-1930s, Carver became convinced that peanuts were the cure. He provided a therapy of peanut oil massages and reported favourable results, even though there is no scientific evidence that the therapies worked.
Carver died at Tuskegee Institute on January 5, 1943, after falling down his home's stairs. He was 78 years old at the time. Carver was interred on the Tuskegee Institute grounds alongside Booker T. Washington. Soon after, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed legislation granting Carver his own monument, a distinction previously bestowed only on Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The George Washington Carver National Monument is now located near Diamond, Missouri. Carver was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously.