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Educator, scientist, and innovator are only three of the titles by which George Washington Carver may be called.
An ardent researcher, Carver loved trying to understand the natural world and finding a way for that world to improve the conditions of African-Americans in the South. Born in 1865 near Diamond Grove, Missouri where his mother worked as a slave, the young Carver was kidnapped and taken to Arkansas. The family his mother worked for offered a reward for his return and he was returned to the home he had known. However, his mother had been taken too and young George found himself alone.
Carver's love affair with nature stemmed from this loneliness , "Day after day I spent in the woods...to collect my floral beautie(e)s...all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor, and plants from all over the county would be brought to me for treatment." Like Booker T. Washington, the young George thirsted for more and more knowledge. Unable to attend local white schools, he went to school in Neosho, Missouri and later moved to Kansas.
Everywhere he went he worked so he could pay for his education. He cooked, did laundry, and as a talented artist sold his paintings to support himself and his quest for knowledge. An accomplished artist, one of his paintings won Honorable Mention at the 1893 World's Fair. Carver earned a BS degree at Iowa Agricultural College were he also served as an assistant botanist at an experimental center. He earned his MS in agriculture in 1896 and specialized in plant diseases. He found a myriad of uses for nature's materials. He dyed his own threads and fibers; he recycled old burlap and string bags; he wove his own mats from bark fibers. Carver made his own paints which he sold to commercial paint companies and encouraged local farmers in Alabama to paint their homes. His paints were also used on the campus of Tuskegee University.
Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington in 1896. Carver's belief in education coincided with those of the educational advocate Washington. Carver wrote in a letter to Washington; "It has always been the one ideal of my life to be of the greatest good to the greatest number of my people possible and to this end I have been preparing myself for these many years, feeling as I do that this line of education is the key." Carver did not impress Washington as an administrator but Washington did find Carver to be "a great teacher, an inspirer." Like Washington, Carver thought students learned best by doing for themselves. He encouraged students to prepare thoroughly for what life had to bring and to 'think on their feet.'
Carver geared all his research and agricultural efforts to providing practical solutions for poor local farmers. He developed fertilizers to help farmers produce more food and better crops to sale. He found hundreds of uses for locally produced sweet potatoes and peanuts. He encouraged farmers to rotate their crops and use all available technology. He experimented and produced amazing results with seeds, soils, soil enrichment and feed grains. He also worked on synthetic substitutes for petroleum and paints. Here are some of the synthetic products developed by Dr. Carver: Adhesives, Axle Grease, Bleach, Buttermilk, Cheese, Chili Sauce, Cream , Creosote, Dyes, Flour, Fuel Briquettes, Ink, Instant Coffee , Insulating Board, Linoleum, Mayonnaise, Meal, Meat Tenderizer, Metal Polish, Milk Flakes, Mucilage, Paper, Rubbing Oils, Salve, Soil Conditioner, Shampoo, Shoe Polish, Shaving Cream, Sugar, Synthetic Marble, Synthetic Rubber, Talcum Powder, Vanishing Cream, Wood Stains, Wood Filler, and Worcestershire Sauce .
Following Washington's call for his faculty members to be engaged with the community in which they worked and lived, Carver had his students build a portable school to carry agricultural exhibits and education to local communities. Funding for the wagon came from Morris K. Jessup, a wealthy New Yorker, who gave the school the money to equip and operate the school. Over the years the school came to include a nurse, an agricultural extension agent, a home demonstration agent, and an architect. Educational films and lectures became a school staple all aimed at improving rural self-sufficiency and self-improvement.
George Washington Carver died on Jan 5, 1943.
photo courtesy: National Archives