Carter was born in 1864 in Diamond Grove, Missouri during the time the Civil War was ending. A child of slave parents, he was raised by adoptive parents in the farmlands of southwest Missouri and early developed a love for nature. His formal education began at the age of twelve. Living during a time of intense racial discrimination, he was not allowed to attend his initial college choice, Highland University. Entering Simpson College in Iowa in 1887 as this school’s first Black student, he showed promise as an artist but his love for science led him to transfer to Iowa Agricultural College in 1891 to earn his degree in agriculture.
In 1897, after completing his master’s degree in agriculture, he worked for a short time as a faculty member at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanics. However, that same year Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama (then known as the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes), invited him to be the college’s first Director of Agriculture, a position he accepted and held it until his death.
Carter’s main work was in the Amercian south. He is perhaps best known for developing well over three hundred uses for the peanut. He also discovered many uses for the sweet potato, soybeans and pecans. He discovered the importance of rotating crops to allow nitrate-depleting crops to be alternated with nitrate-producing crops. This process, known as crop rotation, was received reluctantly at first by southern farmers who were more comfortable with the popular cotton crop. However Carter worked closely with them, helping them to understand how the cotton crop was depleting the soil of nitrates and how using multiple-crop rotation would be the more valuable solution. The economic value of cotton declined rapidly when the cotton crops were destroyed in the early 1900’s by an insect known as the boll weevil.
Carter’s inventions included making hundred of products useful for the home and farm. However, he patented very few of his inventions and is quoted as having said, “God gave them to me. How can I sell them to someone else?” His inventions included cosmetics, paints and gasoline, shampoos, facial cream and soap. He produced 500 shades of dyes. He also developed over 100 uses for sweet potatoes.
Carter spent the remainder of his life in Tuskegee Institute. He was a simple, humble man who cared not for fortune or fame. In an article entitled, “The Legacy of George Washington Carver”, the writer states that as a professor, “Carver taught his students that nature is the greatest teacher and that by understanding the forces in nature, one can understand the dynamics of agriculture.” He did receive several awards, however, including an honorary doctorate degree from Simpson College and the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also dedicated a national monument in his honor. Carter died in 1943 at the age of 79.
Idea Finder:”George Washington Carver”
Iowa State University Digital Collections:”The legacy of George Washington Carver”
Intellectual Village:”George Washington Carver’s Inventions”