George Washington Carver

An agricultural genius

Created date

March 25th, 2019
A portrait of George Washington Carver wearing a suit.

In 1916, Carver became one of the few Americans to enjoy the honor of membership in England’s Royal Society of Arts. At the time of his death in 1943, his fame matched that of Thomas Edison, but in the world of agriculture.

In order to fully appreciate the contributions of George Washington Carver, you have to understand something about agriculture. While I’m no farmer, my father-in-law is, and one thing he constantly warns about is the danger of soil depletion.

He does so with good reason, for this can make or break a crop.

Planting one type of produce in a certain spot too often can ultimately cause big quality and growing problems. For example, tomatoes in the same field for two or more seasons might sap the soil of certain acids and other nutrients that, on the third go-around, would be virtually nonexistent.

The result: a diseased yield or, at best, tasteless tomatoes. George Washington Carver was the agricultural scientist who devoted much of his career to addressing this problem.

Born a slave

Carver was born a slave in modern-day Diamond, Mo., around 1864 (no one knows the exact date). Amazingly, Carver’s “owners,” the German immigrant Moses Carver and his wife, raised the boy as their own child.

The couple taught Carver the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic before sending him to school. But at the time, blacks could not attend public institutions, so Carver walked to a school for African-Americans ten miles away from home.

When he finally arrived there for his first day, he found the place closed.

After spending the night in an adjacent barn, Carver met a woman named Mariah Watkins who lived nearby. Although slavery was a thing of the past, the boy, out of habit, identified himself as “Carver’s George,” to which Watkins responded that his name was “George Carver.”

She went on, telling him: “You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people.”

And that’s just what he did, but with obstacles.

For example, in 1886, he gained acceptance to Highland University in Kansas; however, when they learned of his race, they denied him admission. So he took matters into his own hands, traveling by wagon to Ness County, Kans., to pursue his passion—agriculture.

Here he started a 17-acre conservancy where he planted everything from rice, corn, and fruit trees to shrubs and forest plants.

But being a brilliant mind, Carver’s curiosity also drew him to other subjects, including painting.

And what was his favorite subject while taking art courses on the side at Simpson College in Iowa? Agricultural matter, of course.

Etta Budd, his teacher, recognized this talent and pushed her protégé to formally pursue agriculture.

In 1891, Carver became the first black student in the history of Iowa State University; by 1894, he had finished his senior thesis “Plants as Modified by Man.” In 1896, the gifted pupil had earned his master’s degree, becoming the campus’s first black instructor.

Most important, though, was Carver’s personal research on the improvement of soil depleted by cotton. Next to tobacco, cotton is among the most destructive crops in the way of ground nutrients.

Nitrogen and crop rotation

In conjunction with other agricultural specialists of the day, and through extensive research, Carver discovered that nitrogen and crop rotation were critical to the success of large crop plantings.

In the early twentieth century, Carver’s recommendations had proven wildly successful, offering full-time cotton farmers alternative crops, even garnering the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt.

Because of his research, farmers could get more out of their fields, which meant a lot for those who didn’t own much land. Furthermore, the discovery significantly enhanced one’s chance of a successful farming season, a huge benefit when someone shells out their own money on a gamble with Mother Nature.

This process involved a carefully thought-out schedule of crop rotation, with seasonal alternations between cotton, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. Through careful chemical studies, observation, and sheer trial-and-error, Carver developed a system that evenly consumed and replenished essential acids and soil nutrients—concepts that farmers still utilize today.

People around the world recognized the significance of his contribution to agricultural science. In 1916, the British made Carver a member of the Royal Society of Arts.

Throughout the remaining 27 years of his life, he served as a professor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama while also starting his own industrial laboratory for the development of new, disease-resistant crops and novel uses for such products as peanuts.

For many, his name triggers but a shadow of recognition, despite the fact that the fruits of his labor lie before us nearly every day. So on your next visit to the supermarket’s produce aisle, you might whisper a thank you to the man who made it possible to fill the shelves.