Known as the “plant doctor” as a child, scientist and inventor George Washington Carver was also called the “grandfather of peanuts” and was even dubbed the “black Leonardo” by Time magazine in 1941. (And judging by his ingenuity, he might also be considered the progenitor of the ever-popular “surprising uses” lists.)
His life will be honored, as it is every year on July 13, for the Carver Day Celebration at the national monument that bears his name.
Born into slavery in Diamond Grove, Mo., around 1864, Carver was orphaned at a young age and raised by the couple who had formerly owned his mother. Possessing a frail and sickly constitution, he was left to household chores and gardening, but his curious mind and free time led him to explore the farm and nearby woods. He had such a good way with horticulture that he began helping people who were having problems with their plants, the humble start of a path that would lead to his becoming one of America’s most renowned agricultural scientists and humanitarians.
Along his rise to scientific stardom, Carver achieved a number of accomplishments. The following list includes just some of the highlights.
1. Carver left home at the age of 12 to seek an education. By 1890, he was studying music and art at Simpson College; he became an accomplished painter, exhibiting his art at the 1893 World’s Fair.
2. Deciding to pursue horticulture, Carver became the first African-American to enroll at what is today Iowa State University. Upon graduation he became the school’s first African-American faculty member.
3. In 1896, Booker T. Washington asked Carver to become the director of the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School in Tuskegee, Ala. His career in Alabama lasted for five decades.
4. When boll weevils decimated Alabama’s cotton crop, many farmers turned to peanuts. In 1916, Carver published a research paper titled, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption.”
5. Carver figured out how to separate the peanut’s fats, oils, gums, resins and sugars, and is said to have come up with more than 300 uses for peanuts and hundreds more for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes, all in an effort to help Southern farmers maximize their crop profits. His suggestions included adhesives, axle grease, biofuel, bleach, buttermilk, caramel, chili sauce, glue, ink, insecticides, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, nitroglycerine, paper, plastic, pavement, peanut lemon punch, rubber, sausage, shampoo, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder and wood stain.
6. Carver's records show that he found sweet potatoes ripe for positive exploitation as well; descriptions for surprising uses include 73 dyes, 17 wood fillers, 14 candies, five library pastes, five breakfast foods, four starches, four flours and three types of molasses.
7. Many agree that Carver helped save the economy of the South, not only for his wisdom about peanuts, but for his innovative farming methods, including crop diversification and soil conservation.
8. During World War II, Carver invented some 500 different shades of textile dye to replace ones unavailable for import from Europe.
9. Carver’s research gained him worldwide accolades, and his advice was sought by people across the globe; then President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were admirers, and he even gave nutritional and agricultural advice to Mohandas K. Gandhi.
10. Upon his death in 1943, Carver was decribed by Roosevelt: “All mankind are the beneficiaries of his discoveries in the field of agricultural chemistry. The things which he achieved in the face of early handicaps will for all time afford an inspiring example to youth everywhere.” He dedicated $30,000 for the George Washington Carver National Monumentin Missouri, making Carver the first African-American to have a national park named after him.