George Washington Carver, also known as “The Peanut Man”, is arguably one of the most famous African American scientists in history. The botanical scientist and inventor developed over 300 uses for peanuts during the 20th century and pioneered new, efficient methods of farming.
George Carver was born enslaved in Missouri in 1864, although the exact date of birth is unknown which is typical of enslaved births, where he and his family were owned by Moses Carver – hence the name “Carver”. Following the end of the Civil War and abolition of Missouri slavery in 1965, Carver stayed with Moses and his wife where he was taught to read and write. At the time, no Black students were allowed in schools.
After being rejected from a multitude of colleges Carver was accepted at Highland University in Kansas, however was turned away when he arrived due to his race. Finally, in 1891, Carver became the first Black student at Iowa State University where he studied botany, and after was immediately offered a job by Booker T. Washington – whose name Carver adopted, hence ”Washington” – at the Tuskegee Institute. Here was where George Washington Carver developed the products he is most famed for.
Around this time, a large portion of agricultural land was heavily cultivated for cotton, which depleted soil quality. Carver introduced the crop rotation strategy and cultivation of other nitrogen-fixing crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybean to regenerate land and provide farmers with a more stable income. He also created the “Jessup wagon” – a mobile classroom used to educate farmers on these new strategies.
The success of Carver’s ideas led to a surplus of peanuts, from which came his most famous contributions to science. He found hundreds of different uses for the nut including in milk, oils, soaps, cosmetic products, and medicines; although it is worth noting that not all of these products made it to production. This branded Carver with the name “The Peanut Man”.
One of the most common misconceptions about Carver, however, is that one of his peanut inventions was peanut butter. This was created by Canadian chemist Marcellus Gilmore Edson in 1884 while Carver was at university.
By Morwenna Davies
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