George Washington Carver
Picture of George Washington Carver taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1906.

Earlier this month, scientists gathered at Tuskegee University in Alabama to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Washington Carver, and to celebrate his scientific innovations.

Carver was a modern-day Renaissance man. He revolutionized farming in the American South; he was a painter, singer, piano teacher and educator. He did NOT invent peanut butter, as the common myth goes; he did, however, invent nearly 300 uses for it, says Cathie Woteki, chief scientist and undersecretary for research education and economics at the US Department of Agriculture.

“He certainly popularized it,” she says. “He's certainly known for introducing the peanut and being a peanut evangelist to farmers in Alabama.” Carver’s uses for the peanut included everything from soaps, lotions, shaving cream, paper, linoleum and nitro glycerin that could be used as dyes for leather and cloth. He also invented new ways to process the peanut into different kinds of peanut flours and peanut oil. (Since we’re doing some myth-busting, please note: peanuts are a legume, not a tree nut.)

Carver also showed that the peanut plant could improve soil by planting it in rotation with other crops, while also providing a high-protein vegetable for farmers' families to eat and an additional product to bring to market, Woteki says.

According to Dana Chandler, the archivist at Tuskegee University, where Carver taught for many years, Carver’s notebooks are filled with a wide variety of ideas and experiments. “They range from testing milk and milk dyes to inventing different types of paints to his work tracing the cause of dysentery that had become an issue for the campus,” Chandler says.

“Carver was also influential in extension education — bringing research to the farmer using bulletins that he wrote and distributed for free,” Woteki notes. “He created a mobile classroom, called the Jesup Wagon after the person who provided the funding, that he could bring around and do demonstrations for farmers.”

Carver was born in 1864 or 1865. His father died shortly after his birth and Carver was soon separated from his mother, who he never saw again. He was sickly early in his life and worked in the house of plantation owners Susan and Moses Carver. When he wasn't working, he spent time out in the fields and forests, observing plants, rocks and soils. Carver credits his work to his “curiosity about God's creation and wanting to understand it better,” Chandler says.

After some years of traveling on his own, seeking better education and opportunities, Carver was admitted to Simpson College in Iowa, where he studied art and music. By chance, one of his teachers recognized that he had a strong scientific bent. The teacher’s father was on the faculty at Iowa College (now Iowa State). Carver met the science faculty there and entered the program. In 1894, he became the first African American graduate from Iowa State. Two years later, he received a master's degree, in horticulture and plant pathology.

Chandler says Carver was the first "green" or eco-minded scientist. “You might think of him as being the father of the ‘bio-economy.’ His emphasis on finding new uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans and walnuts is like what we're trying to do now — finding alternatives to petroleum in agricultural products and finding uses for agricultural wastes.”

In 1916, Carver was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce in London, England. Fellows are eligible to receive this honor only if they have demonstrated achievement or potential related to the arts, manufacturing, or commerce.

“Think about this,” Chandler says. “At a time when we have segregation and Jim Crow laws, here's Carver, a black man, being elevated to a famous position in England — one that he doesn't receive until much later in the US.”

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow

Related Stories