“The Peanut Man” may have passed away over 70 years ago, but his inventions remain relevant today, as does his personal legacy of innovative success and desire to improve life for all and serve his fellow man.
Don’t let George Washington Carver’s unassuming nickname fool you – the story of this botanist, chemist and inventor who created over 300 products from the simple peanut is one of resourcefulness, triumph over adversity, humility and genuine concern for mankind.
Carver was born into slavery in 1865 during the Civil War in Diamond, Missouri on the farm of Moses and Susan Carver. His father died before he was born. Subsequently, slave traders kidnapped his mother and him. George was recovered by an acquaintance of the Carvers who returned him, but his mother was separated from her boy and sold elsewhere.
As a slight and sickly child, George helped Susan with chores around the Carver’s cabin and tended to the garden where he developed a love of nature. Susan taught him to read and write, and at 11 years old, he attended an all-black school for two years. Carver spent the next ten years or so traveling from one Midwestern town to another and eventually enrolled at the State Agricultural College at Ames, Iowa. By 1896, he’d earned a bachelor’s and graduate degree. He was not only the first African-American to enroll at what is today Iowa State University, but he then became the university’s first black faculty member, as well.
During his schooling in Iowa, George proved himself to be an outstanding botanist, and his reputation and accomplishments landed him a position as Director of the Agricultural Department at the African American Tuskegee Institute. Under his leadership, both the department and Carver himself flourished, receiving national recognition for experimental work in crop rotation and alternative cash crop studies, especially with peanut crops, sweet potatoes and soybeans.
Around 1892, an infestation of the boll weevil plagued the South, which ravaged cotton crops. Carver, who was determined to help poor Southern farmers with their yields, focused on rotating cotton crops with the peanut crop because it was simple to grow and refreshed nitrogen-depleted soil from growing cotton. During this post-Civil War era, many freed slaves became farmers and sharecroppers who struggled to grow their own fields. So, Carver created the Jesup Wagon, a horse-drawn classroom and laboratory designed to explain and demonstrate soil chemistry, to teach unknowledgeable sharecroppers the secret to growing better cotton.
As Carver had hoped, hearty cotton crops grew once more throughout the rural South. Though farmers were elated by their rejuvenated yields of cotton, they were less than thrilled with the massive surplus of peanuts they had acquired. Not knowing how to use the legume, the crops often rotted in storage.
Determined to make use of the plentiful legumes for the frustrated farmers, Carver spent days in his laboratory inventing an array of products that could be easily made with peanuts or peanut byproducts. Included on the full list of Carver’s peanut inventions are recipes for pancake mix, chili sauce, instant coffee, mayonnaise, salad oil, cheese, milk, vinegar and countless sweet treats using peanuts, like peanut fudge, cocoa-covered peanuts and peanut popcorn bars.
In addition, Carver proved his knack for innovation and resourcefulness by venturing beyond foodstuffs as the sole use for peanuts and created household products from the legume like laundry soap, laxatives, an iron tonic, and a substitute for castor oil. He concocted cosmetic products like lotions, shampoo, face powder, shaving cream, glycerin, toilet soap and antiseptic soap from peanuts. He created dyes and stains, insecticides and glue, gasoline and writer/printer ink, rubber and diesel fuel, and much more - all from the little lowly peanuts and their shells. To add to his invention count, Carver discovered numerous uses for the sweet potato, as well.
And, yes - Carver did create a novel version of peanut butter, but he is not the original inventor of the beloved spread. The Aztec people beat him to that discovery several thousands of years earlier around 900 BC.
With the intent of distributing his many peanut uses and hope to the masses in the South, Carver wrote a multi-purpose brochure “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” The publication explained why peanuts were a good choice in the crop rotation process, how they would aid the soil and numerous ways to consume and use the legume around the home and farm.
Because of his accomplishments, research and discoveries with crop rotation, uses of peanut and sweet potato plants and so much more, Carver is credited in large part with bolstering and ultimately saving the agricultural economy of the South. After his death on January 5, 1943, at Tuskegee University, the George Washington Carver National Monument was constructed in his honor on the farm where Carver was born in Diamond, Missouri. This monument was the first national memorial for an African American.
Because of his botanical brilliance and desire to do good, Carver made many well-established acquaintances throughout his life, including Henry Ford, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington and even Mahatma Ghandi, whom he counseled on agricultural, nutrition and botany matters.
Yet, for all of his successes, achievements and history-making – especially as a black man in the South – Carver only patented three of his inventions, and is quoted as saying, “One reason that I never patent my products is that if I did, it would take so much time I would get nothing else done. But mainly I don’t want any discoveries to benefit specific favored persons. I think they should be available to all peoples.”
Carver’s life story could have played out very differently, had it not been for his determination to find answers and the desire to serve his fellow man with his discoveries. Carver was a living example of the true reason why humans invent – to leave the world better than we found it and make life a little easier for other people.
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