God’s Scientist: George Washington Carver

EDITORIAL NOTE: Each year February is Black History Month, but this year we will also mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With this in mind we decided to do a series celebrating the important and innovative contributions of African-Americans. This article is about George Washington Carver. Earlier this month Eric Guttag also wrote The Black Edison: Granville T. Woods. Later this month we also will take a look at recent innovations coming out of historically black colleges and universities. For more on this topic please visit black inventors on IPWatchdog.com.


George Washington Carver in 1942.

Again, in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, here is my second article on African-American inventors:  George Washington Carver.  Carver was not only a talented innovator, but was also an extremely gifted educator and scientist.

So as I usually do, let’s start off with a couple of questions.  Before today, how many of you knew George Washington Carver was a scientist and educator?  Now how many of you knew Carver was also a talented painter, as well as a talented musician?  How many of you knew that Carver was a man of devout Christian faith?  Well, before this article ends, you may learn quite a few things about Carver you never knew before.

I’ve divided this tribute to Carver into essentially six sections, which will be covered in a two-part series.  I begin by giving you an overview of the early years of Carver’s life, including his family background, early education, as well as his developing Christian faith.  Then we will move onto Carver’s activities as a young adult. In part 2 of this series we will  then review the most well-known part of Carver’s career, as an educator and scientist at Tuskegee Institute, including the tremendous impact he had in educating young black students, and the local farm community near Tuskegee, as well as exploring and revealing the wonders of agricultural science, including innovating and developing the infant domestic peanut industry.  We will then close out Carver’s career during his final years at the Tuskegee Institute.  And, if it’s possible to do it justice, in the last section, I’ll wrap up with a final assessment of Carver’s legacy on those he touched directly, and also on those of us like you and me that he has touched indirectly.



Some Interesting Facts About Carver

For starters, let’s discover some interesting facts about Carver.  Trying to catalogue all of interesting facts and lore about Carver is almost an exercise in futility.  But here are some that are well documented, some others that will surprise you, and some so strange that you may not believe, but, yes, they’re true:

  1. He was a gifted painter, pianist, and singer.
  2. He discovered and developed hundreds of uses for peanuts, essentially creating an over $500 million industry.
  3. He was named a Fellow by the Royal Society of Arts in England.  For those of you who don’t know what the Royal Society of Arts is (its full name is the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), it is a prestigious British multi-disciplinary institution based in London that includes on its membership roll Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Stephen Hawking, as well as some Americans such as Benjamin Franklin.  At the time Carver became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, it had admitted only a few Americans, such as Franklin, and likely hadn’t admitted many blacks, American or otherwise.
  4. In 1921, Carver’s prominence in the peanut industry was so great that he was asked to give an address to Congress to help in passing a tariff bill in support of the fledgling U.S. peanut Industry.  He was originally given only about 15 minutes or less to speak.  But the members of Congress were so enthralled by his presentation and display of products derived from peanuts that he went on talking for a couple of hours.  Most significantly, Carver’s presentation was instrumental in the passage of this tariff bill by Congress.
  5. On May 7, 1943, a Liberty ship named the SS George Washington Carver, was launched at the Richmond (Cal.) Shipyard.
  6. In 1946, a resolution was passed by Congress designating January 5 as George Washington Carver Day.
  7. In 1990, Carver was inducted as the first African-American into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, now located in Akron, Ohio.  This induction was based on two patents he received in 1925.  One was for a cosmetic and a process for making that cosmetic from peanuts.  The other was for a paint and stain, and process for making them from clays.  Carver felt that extensive patenting of what he discovered or created was not his thing:  “God gave them to me.  How can I sell them to someone else?”
  8. Many innovators share a common bond, so it’s not too surprising that Carver became very good friends with several American innovators.  One was with Henry Ford, shown here together in this photo. Another was with Thomas Edison.  Lore has it that Carver declined a “6-figure” salary to go work for Edison.
  9. In 1948, as well as 1998, a three-cent postal stamp was issued with his picture.
  10. Here is a photo of but one of many elementary schools and high schools named after Carver, along with museums, parks, and the like.
  11. There is a George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, MO.
  12. But the most interesting fact to me, and perhaps one of the strangest of all is this one:  in 1966, the U.S Navy commissioned a Ben Franklin class ballistic missile submarine called the USS George Washington Carver.  Yes, in naval military parlance, there’s even a “boomer” named after him.


Early Years of Carver’s Life:  Slave Birth and Schooling

Carver’s early childhood is somewhat of a mystery.  His parents, Mary and Giles, were reportedly bought by Moses Carver, a German immigrant, in 1855, possibly a “mercy” purchase.  Pinning down an exact birth date for Carver is also probably not possible, although he was likely born in 1864 or possibly as late 1865, in Diamond Grove, Missouri.  He was also born as a slave, which isn’t surprising given that Missouri was still a slave state at the time of his birth.  He was given the first name “George” by the Carvers.  But the lore about where he got his middle name of “Washington” is supposedly based on a response to what his middle initial “W” stood for which Carver later adopted while in high school.  When asked whether his middle initial “W” stood for our first president, Carver supposedly responded “why not?,” and thus he became known forever after as George Washington Carver.

Tragedy struck Carver’s family soon after he was born.  His father Giles was killed in a log hauling accident.  In 1865, George, his mother Mary, and one sister were kidnapped by “bushwhackers,” a colloquial euphemism for thieves of various sorts.  Moses Carver was able to get the infant George back, but George never saw his mother or that sister ever again.  Illness also claimed the lives of two other sisters.

George, and his older brother Jim (who also died at fairly young age), were raised in Diamond Grove by Moses Carver and his wife, Sue, (known to George and his brother Jim as “Uncle Moses” and “Aunt Sue”) pretty much as their own kids as the Carvers were childless.  George, who had fairly poor health, and also had a noticeable stuttering problem which he eventually overcame, did various chores for the Carvers.  George spent most of his free time in the woods where he was soon to develop his love and gift for nature.  More on that in a minute.

In 1877, George then went to nearby Neosho to attend grade school.  There he was taken in by a childless African-American couple, the Watkins, known to him as Uncle Andy and Aunt Mariah who, like the Carvers, treated him as one of their own.  The Watkins also attended an African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) church and gave George his first Bible, thus furthering his developing faith which had been started by Uncle Moses and Aunt Sue.  More on that also in a minute.

A year later, after learning as much as he could at the school in Neosho, George hitched a ride with a family, traveling 100 miles to attend grade school in Fort Scott, Kansas.  While attending school in Fort Scott, George worked as a cook.  Unfortunately, in 1879, he witnessed a lynching of an African-American, and then fled from Fort Scott.  George later attended various other schools, finally finishing high school in Minneapolis, Kansas.



Early Years of Carver’s Life:  The Plant Doctor, Growing Faith in God

Now that we have the basics on George Washington Carver’s early years, here are some important aspects of his childhood that were to remain with him throughout his life.  The first is his love of nature, especially the soil and plants.  George had an almost intuitive feel for the soil (the science of agronomy), as well as for all things growing from the soil (the science of botany), and in George’s case, a specific interest in agricultural science.  In fact, George was referred to in his childhood as “The Plant Doctor” because of his interest in and curiosity about plants, and especially his keen ability to make any plant grow.

Another important aspect of George that was imparted during his childhood was a developing and strong faith in God, whom he often referred to as The Great Creator.  At age 10, and certainly due to the influence of the devout Uncle Moses and Aunt Sue, George began attending church in Diamond Grow.  In fact, George simultaneously nurtured his interest in science in combination with his growing faith in God, to the extent that he believed that he could have both faith in God as well as in science without any conflict.  Indeed, Carver later viewed his Christian faith as a “means of destroying both the barriers of racial disharmony and social stratification.”


Carver as a Young Adult:  The Unquenchable Thirst for Education

Now let’s turn to George Washington Carver as a young adult.  As others have stated, Carver had a “thirst for education.”  And that thirst for education wasn’t to be quenched by grade school and high school.  As Carver was to remark later about going to grade school in Neosho, “[t]his simply sharpened my appetite for more knowledge.”

After moving to Kansas City at the age of 20, Carver applied for entry to Highland College in 1885.  His application was even accepted by Highland College.  But Carver got his first direct taste of racial discrimination in education when he was refused admission at Highland College because he was black.  So Carver worked for about a year in Highland, and then in August 1886, moved to western Kansas to homestead.  For those who don’t know what homesteading is, the federal government once made land available at very low cost to those, like Carver, who were interested in farming in the more sparsely settled portions of western America.  Carver was actually fairly successful at homesteading.  But that unquenchable thirst for a college education always remained with Carver.

In 1889, Carver then moved to Winterset, Iowa to become a chef and run a laundry business.  In 1890, he was then encouraged to enroll at Simpson College in Winterset, which had already accepted one other African-American, and thus became the second African-American to be admitted by Simpson.  While Carver planned to study art at Simpson College (more on that later), he was encouraged by Etta May Budd, his art teacher at Simpson, to consider pursuing agricultural science based on his paintings which reflected a keen interest in plants; in the picture you see below of the Budd family, Etta is shown at the very bottom center.  Because of his switch from art to agricultural science, Carver was also encouraged by Etta to transfer to the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (now known as Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa.  In fact, Etta’s father, John Lancaster Budd, also shown below at the top of the Budd family picture, was to teach Carver horticulture at Iowa State College.

In 1894, Carver earned a Bachelor of Agriculture Degree from Iowa State College, having impressed his professors with his ability to successfully graft plants.  In fact, he became the first African-American to ever graduate from Iowa State College.  Carver was also encouraged to pursue a Masters degree, and thus became a professor at Iowa State College, another “first” for African-Americans at ISC.  While teaching at Iowa State College, Carver also did work in plant pathology and mycology that was to gain him national recognition as a botanist.


Carver as a Young Adult:  The Painter and Musician

George Washington Carver, circa 1890.

While most know about Carver the scientist, there was also Carver the gifted painter.  In this photo below, you can see Carver painting one of his favorite subjects:  some floral plant, most likely growing in the wild.

But Carver was also a very gifted musician, both vocally and instrumentally.  While attending church in Winterset, he was found to have a beautiful singing voice.  In fact, as already noted, when Carver first entered Simpson College, he planned to study piano and art.  Besides the piano, he also played various instruments while at Simpson College.  Prior to Simpson, Carver had also played the accordion which made him very popular at community dances.  This man of God and science was thus a man of many different talents.

Continue Reading —> The Legacy of George Washington Carver


*© Eric W. Guttag 2013, 2014  (Based on a presentation made in February 2013 at the West Chester Library, West Chester, Ohio.)



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