"When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will comand the attention of the world."
- George Washington Carver
"He could have added fortune and fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."
- Inscription on tombstone of G.W. Carver
The early years
George Washington Carver was a gifted, giving individual, born into slavery near the end of the Civil War and reared by German-American immigrants who treated him as one of their own.
Owing to a bout with whooping cough as an infant, George was left too weak to work in his master's fields. Instead, he roamed those fields, becoming knowledgeable about a wide variety of wildflowers and plants. Neighbors, hearing of his talents, brought him over to nurse a favorite plant back to health.
When the task was completed, the neighbors bade him to come to the kitchen. What greeted him was not payment, but something far more valuable Â a number of awe-inspiring flower paintings. They so-impressed George that he decided to integrate artistry with his love of plants.
To go to school, George had to travel 10 miles south of his Diamond Grove, Missouri, home, to a one-room schoolhouse where blacks were accepted. He had to rent a room in Neosho. After getting to know his landlady, a kindly woman named Mariah Watkins, she admonished him, "You learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people." That admonishment stuck with the young man for his lifetime.
George was obliged to attend several high schools while living with various foster parents, finally earning his diploma from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
In 1887, after first being accepted by mail to attend Highland College in Kansas, only to be turned away in person because he was black, Carver was accepted at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa.
In 1891, Carver transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where he became the first black student, and later, the first African-American faculty member. He earned his bachelor's degree in agricultural science in 1894, and his master of science degree in 1896.
A career blooms
The big turning point in Carver's fledgling career occurred in 1896, when Booker T. Washington persuaded him to take over the agricultural department at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), in Tuskegee, Alabama.
It was there that Carver was able to help convince farmers of the value of nitrogen in the soil to enhance their cotton crop yields. Since cotton does not replenish the nitrogen it leeches from the ground, Carver persuaded the farmers to rotate their cotton crops, substituting such replenishing legume family plants as peanuts and soy beans, to help restore the soil.
Since those new crops had to be economically feasible to grow and harvest, Carver needed ways to market them.
What he came up with was nothing short of remarkable. Carver developed more than 300 uses for the lowly peanut, thus creating instant markets for the dirt-poor farmers. Included in the variety of uses for the peanut were dyes, glue, marble, printer's ink, punches, vanishing cream, and Worcestershire sauce. Ironically, peanut butter was not one of his inventions. A crude form of peanut butter was already being manufactured at a couple of food processing companies in the U.S. as early as 1895.
In addition to peanuts, Carver found more than 100 uses for the sweet potato, another good plant for the soil, including flour, ink, molasses, postage stamp glue, synthetic rubber, and vinegar.
When the boll weevil nearly wiped out cotton growers in 1914, Carver had the leverage to turn the farmers to other crops to save their farms. Within 50 years, the peanut harvest was recognized as one of the top six crops in the U.S. and the second-leading cash crop in the South.
Carver's kudos included his election to Great Britain's Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, in 1916, and the Spingarn Medal given by the NAACP, in 1923. In 1928, Simpson College bestowed an honary doctorate on Carver. Three presidents, Theodore Rosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, made it a point to visit Carver.
Such international dignitaries as Mahatma Gandhi of India and the Crown Prince of Sweden, had short-term stays with Carver, while his perhaps most well-known guest, Henry Ford, worked with him to synthesize rubber.
In 1940, the George Washington Carver Foundation was established at Tuskegee University, followed by the George Washington Carver Museum in 1941. In 1942, Carver ws the recipient of the Roosevelt Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Southern Agriculture.
Following Carver's death, hastened by his falling down a flight of steps in January 1943, President Roosevelt made $30,000 available to establish the George Washington Carver National Monument, the first such dedication to an African American. The 210-acre parcel features a bronze bust of Carver, the Carver house of 1881 vintage, the family cemetery, and a nature trail.
Honors continued to pour in years after Carver's death. In 1977, he was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and in 1990, he was the first African American elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
See also Important and Famous African Americans .
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by George Washington Carver.
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.
The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South (Tuskegee Institute, 1902)