The brilliant mind of a man who loved peanut

February 2020

George Washington Carver was born in Diamond Grove, Missouri, around 1864. Being a frail, sickly child, he was put to work around the house and in the garden. With many free hours to wander the woods, Carver spent much time collecting rocks and flowers. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with nature, and he soon became known by friends and neighbors as the "Plant Doctor" for nurturing sick plants.

Carver left Diamond Grove at age 12 to pursue an education, which led him to Iowa. In 1890, he began to study music and art at Simpson College, growing to be an accomplished painter --his artwork was displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair -- and pianist. Painting enabled him to combine his two loves — art and nature. However, it was his horticultural talents that took him in another direction. By 1891, Carver became the first African-American to enroll at what is today Iowa State University. He proved to be an excellent student, and upon graduation, he became the school’s first African-American faculty member.

In 1896, Carver accepted the invitation by Booker T. Washington George, one of the most influential African- American intellectuals of the late 19th century, and became the Director of the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, Alabama. After learning that the school was short on funds, he managed to equip his own lab, searching trash heaps for items to use with his students. This resourcefulness proved that George Washington Carver was well ahead of his time. These scavenger hunts were an early example of recycling and the conservation of natural resources.

Lasting Legacy

With an insatiable curiosity and keen knowledge of chemistry and physics, Carver conducted extensive research with peanut separating the fats, oils, gums, resins and sugars. As a result, he developed 300 new uses for groundnut from his lab at Tuskegee, ranging from cosmetic products like face powder, shampoo, shaving cream, and hand lotion to insecticides, glue, charcoal, insulation, paper wallboard, wood stains, among many other inventions.

His research bulletin "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption," published in 1916, offered a list of food products made with peanut, ranging from peanut lemon punch, chilli sauce, caramel, peanut sausage, mayonnaise and coffee, to name a few of the many valuable peanut products discovered by the most outstanding agricultural scientist of the early 20th century.

By creating different uses for peanuts, George Washington Carver helped to save the economy of the South. At the time, the boll weevil had destroyed Alabama's cotton crop, and many farmers turned to peanuts as a cash crop. Cotton oil mills were converted to produce peanut oil. Livestock could eat the peanut plant, and sharecroppers could feed their families on crops that weren't sold. Another of his best-known inventions is crop rotation to prevent soil depletion.

George Washington Carver died in January 1943, a few days after his 79th birthday. Upon his death, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, stated: "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."