George Washington Carver was a lot more than peanuts.
He was born a slave, in Missouri, during the American Civil War and died in the middle of World War II. In between, he was part of creating a more sustainable farming system, particularly for poor African American farmers in the South.
Carver essentially had a career planting more productive farmers
Carver was initially educated by his former owners, the Carvers, in Missouri (he, like all the other slaves were technically freed by passage of the 13th Amendment, though arguably, it was, and still is partial-freedom at best). Certainly not typical, but perhaps not unheard of. Carver always loved plants and gardening, something he would encourage many others to do in his life to grow their own food.
Carver got his higher degree at Iowa State and was hired on to head the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This is where, amongst other things, he got known for peanuts. And sweet potatoes. And as a great teacher. And a trainer of farmers.
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.
—George Washington Carver
One of Carver’s projects at Tuskegee was a wagon that traveled around rural places and taught farmers techniques to get more out of their land and to improve their lives. Carver didn’t travel with the wagon himself, but he designed a lot of the curriculum. The wagon would teach one farmer and when neighbors saw how effective the techniques were, they began adopting them themselves. This program was successful enough to be incorporated into the United States Department of Agriculture.
Carver loved plants and dedicated his life to improving the lot of poor farmers. Part of the reason peanuts were good was, as legumes, they fix nitrogen in the soil, replenishing it after a crop like cotton depletes it. With rotations of Sweet potatoes, peas, and peanuts, soil could be recharged for another round of cotton growth without a farmer needing to buy expensive nitrogen fertilizer (the Haber-Bosch process of chemically producing nitrogen fertilizer was invented during Carver’s lifetime, but as with all industrial activity, took time to scale and make fertilizer a lot cheaper). Amongst other things, Carver essentially had a career planting more productive farmers.
Carver learned thriftiness as a kid and sought to teach that to others as well. He took this idea to a bit of an extreme with finding alternative uses and products to develop out of various crop plants. Applying plant products to industrial uses, something we take for granted today. Carver did indeed find 300 uses for the peanut. He also found products to make out of Sweet potatoes and other plants as well. Finding out how plants could be further valuable was something he was good at. To do that he had to be a good scientist, attuned to nature.
I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in
—George Washington Carver
Carver of course was a person too and had clashes with the administration as a professor who wanted to do research more than teaching (eventually he got his wish to spend more time in the lab and that didn’t mean abandoning students). It’s somewhat refreshing to know, perhaps, that there isn’t much new under the sun in higher education. However, Carver does seem to have managed to both find outlets to teach and do research at the same time.
Like Percy Julian I wrote about last year, Carver found a path to success despite rampant discrimination because of his race. He had enough mentors and teachers and supporters along his path to encourage him and help him along. Carver was bright, no doubt, but in an environment where few looked past his skin to what was in his mind and heart.
Education made a huge difference in Carver’s life. It is something that he and Julian have in common, as well as being natural product developers and successful scientists with long careers.