American Botanist 1865-1943
George Washington Carver was born in 1865, near the end of the Civil War (1861-65). His mother was a slave on the Moses and Susan Carver farm close to Diamond Grove, Missouri. Carver was orphaned while still in his infancy and was raised by the Carvers. He received a practical education working on the farm and in 1877 was sent to attend a school for African-American children in the nearby town of Neosho. From Neosho, Carver traveled through several states in pursuit of a basic education. He took odd jobs to support himself and lived with families he met along the way.
In 1890 Carver began a study of art at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. The following year he left Simpson to pursue studies in agriculture at the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames. He enrolled in 1891 as the first African-American student at Iowa State. Carver maintained an excellent academic record and was noted for his skill in plant hybridization using techniques of cross-fertilization and grafting. An appointment as assistant botanist allowed him to continue with graduate studies while teaching and conducting greenhouse studies.
In 1896 American educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) extended an invitation to Carver to head the agriculture department at Al
hybridization formation of a new individual from parents of different species or varieties
abama's Tuskegee Institute. Carver accepted the invitation and remained at Tuskegee until his death forty-seven years later in 1943. During his tenure at Tuskegee he taught classes, directed the Agricultural Experiment Station, managed the school's farms, served on various councils and committees, and directed a research department.
Carver's work focused on projects that held potential for improving the lives of poor southern farmers. Years of repeated planting of a single crop, cotton, and uncontrolled erosion had depleted southern soils. He advocated the wise use of natural resources, sustainable methods of agriculture, soil enrichment, and crop diversification.
One of Carver's first efforts was to find methods within reach of the farmer with limited technical and financial means for enriching the soils. He conducted soil analysis to determine what was needed to make soils more productive. Then Carver proceeded to set up scientific experiments to determine organic methods for building up the soil. He also tried planting and cultivating various plants and plant varieties so he could identify ones that could be successfully grown. Sweet potatoes, peanuts, and cowpeas were considered the most promising. These plants were favored because they could help enrich the soil, they could offer good nutritional value to animals and humans, they were easily preserved and stored, and they could be used as raw material for the production of useful products. Carver developed hundreds of products from these resources. He recognized that processing raw materials was a means of adding value to and increasing the demand for the agricultural products of the South.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, shortages of certain goods were felt. This caused Carver's substitutes and alternatives to gain attention. Sweet potato products and peanut milk were especially of interest. In 1921 Carver appeared before a congressional committee to testify on the importance of protecting the U.S. peanut industry by establishing a tariff on imported peanuts, and a tariff was established. This event brought Carver national and international recognition as a scientist. Carver spent the remainder of his life conducting agricultural research and sharing his knowledge with individuals in the South and throughout the world. see also Agriculture, Organic; Breeder; Breeding; Economic Importance of Plants; Fabaceae.
Janet M. Pine
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