MiSciNet's Ancestors of Science, George Washington Carver

Image: George Washington Carver, 1864-1943, a great math mind


George Washington Carver elevated the profile of scientific agriculture, becoming one of America's preeminent scholars, African-American or otherwise. The agricultural products he produced helped the South's economy as well as its ecology. Carver dispelled negative stereotypes about African Americans' intellectual ability and made science accessible to the layman. He received an honorary doctorate from Simpson College in 1928 and from Iowa State University in 1994. Carver's childhood home is now a national park, the first such memorial to an African American in the United States.

Although the exact year is unknown, Carver was born into slavery just before the end of the Civil War on Moses Carver's plantation in Diamond Grove, Missouri. The Carver family raised him after his mother was abducted by slave raiders. As a youth, he developed an interest in plants by gardening and exploring the woods. At the time, African Americans were denied admittance to local schools, so Carver taught himself to read and write.

At age 10, Carver left home to pursue a formal education, eventually finishing high school in Minneapolis, Kansas. He paid for his education by working various jobs. In 1890, Carver enrolled at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, to study fine arts. However, his instructor, Etta Budd, persuaded him to pursue scientific agriculture at the Iowa Agricultural College (IAC; now Iowa State University). Carver graduated from IAC with a B.S. (1894) and a M.S. (1896) in botany and agriculture.

As a graduate student, Carver was an assistant botanist at IAC. After graduating, Carver accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington, president of Alabama's Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes (now Tuskegee University), to head the agricultural department. Despite Tuskegee's meager facilities and resources, Carver created a lab from makeshift equipment and inspired skeptical students.

Beyond teaching and research, Carver helped local farmers. By rotating cotton (which depleted the soil of vital nitrogen) with peanuts and other legumes (which restored nitrogen), crop production radically increased. However, Carver's genius didn't stop there. He created 118 products from 28 different plants (primarily peanuts), which helped improve the local economy and make the peanut industry worth $200 million in 1938.

Carver's financial situation didn't quell his philanthropic ambitions. Although he only had three patents and made $125 a month in 1938, Carver donated his life's savings and his estate to create a foundation to encourage agricultural research. He even rejected numerous offers of high-paying jobs to remain at Tuskegee until his death of anemia on 5 January 1943.


1. A. Myers, " Carver, George Washington." Retrieved from the World Wide Web Encarta Africana Web Site on 17 July 2004.

2. " The Legacy of George Washington Carver." Retrieved from the World Wide Web Iowa State University e-Library Web Site on 17 July 2004.

3. T. Gale, " Biography of George Washington Carver." Retrieved from the World Wide Web Encarta Africana Web Site on 17 July 2004.

4. M. C. Brown, " Profile of George Washington Carver." Retrieved from the World Wide Web "The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences" Web Site on 17 July 2004.

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