George Washington Carver
Agricultural Scientist, Social Activist
We like to think of scientists as these very straight ahead kind of thinkers that are very precise. But Carver was different, he was very open to... inspiration.Suzanne Fischer, Former Associate Curator of Technology, The Henry Ford
About the Innovator
Born into slavery in a tiny Missouri town during the final year of the Civil War, George Washington Carver went on to become one of America's most notable and prolific agricultural scientists. Chemist, researcher, inventor and revered educator, he also had a profound impact as a social activist.
After wrangling his way into all-white Simpson College - he was the first African American student there - he studied his two great passions; painting and music. But in time, he turned his attention and talents to the world of farming that he knew as a child and became the first African American to receive a Master's degree at Iowa State University.
Somewhere in the course of his studies, he developed the concept that was to be central to all of his work - what he called a "mighty vision." He believed there could be a mutually profitable relationship between agriculture and manufacturing. It was a philosophy shared by industrialist Henry Ford, who became one of Carver's greatest allies and most influential supporters. When Carver became infirm, in fact, Ford had an elevator installed at the Tuskegee Institute so that Carver could more easily access his office and laboratory.
Carver found ways to incorporate portions of the peanut into a vast array of products: cosmetics, dyes, plastics, gasoline, cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, wood stains - 300 in all. For sweet potatoes, he found another 118 non-food uses, from rubber to postage stamp glue.
Why He Innovated
For George Washington Carver, research was never just pure science. It was about the impact that research might have on people’s lives, particularly the impoverished African-American people of America’s Deep South. Poverty was endemic in the Reconstruction era South, particularly in those areas that relied almost exclusively on agriculture. After decades of nonstop cotton farming, much of the land was depleted of its natural resources. Carver thought that if he could find more economically productive uses for crops like peanuts, sweet potatoes and cow peas – plants that would enrich the soil – he might be able to have an enduring impact on the unending cycle of poverty that defined so many lives. He traveled constantly, lecturing about his radical agricultural theories wherever a group of people would listen to him. It was never easy, though. Because of the intensely segregated society around him, he was forced to travel in “colored” railway cars and stay in segregated hotels. In fact, hotels’ whites-only dining rooms made it impossible for him to dine with the very people who had come to hear him speak. His mix of science and social justice improved tens of thousands of lives at the same time that it altered the landscape of American agriculture by laying the groundwork for organic farming and contemporary research into plant-based fuels and medicines.