George Washington Carver was born in 1864 to Mary and Giles, a slave couple, near Diamond, Missouri. Shortly after his birth, he, along with his mother and sister, was kidnapped by raiders from Arkansas, but was rescued by his master Moses Carver, who traded a horse to the raiders in exchange for the infant George's release. Although Moses Carver and his wife Susan owned slaves, they were opposed to the concept of slavery. After the culmination of the American Civil War in 1865, they took care of George and his brother James like their own.
George became interested in practical botany and gardening at a very early age. He used to spend hours tending to the Carvers' garden, and developed a reputation as a 'plant doctor' in Diamond Grove. Speaking about his love for nature, he later said, "If you love it enough, anything will talk to you."
Carver went through a trying childhood, since very few schools and colleges at the time accepted black students. Carver was once accepted in a college on the back of his excellent grades, but was refused admission when the college administration came to know about his race. He earned his diploma at Minneapolis High School, and his degree in botany from Iowa State University, where he was the first black student. He later taught at Iowa for a few years, also becoming the first black person to do so.
Booker T. Washington, a charismatic and influential early black leader, offered Carver a faculty position in the Agricultural Department at the Tuskegee Institute in 1896. Carver reinvigorated the fledgling Tuskegee Institute, and carried on his research there for the next 47 years.
While at Tuskegee, Carver studied the problems faced by the hegemony of cotton in Southern plantations. Cotton, although a very viable commercial crop, extracts heavy amounts of nutrients from the soil, leaving the soil less fertile with each harvest. Carver realized that unless a system of crop rotation was put into place, the soil would soon become infertile, leading to more hardships for the (predominantly black) farmers and farmhands.
He educated the farmers on the importance of crop rotation and advised them to cultivate peanuts, other legumes or sweet potatoes (these plants restore nitrogen to the soil, 'healing' the effects of the taxing cotton farming). However, his efforts were met with suspicion and derision. Peanuts were not a profitable commercial crop at the time -- they were only used as street-side snacks -- and sweet potatoes were looked upon as 'pig food'.
Eventually, farmers came to realize that the continued production of cotton could not sustain itself, and switched to planting peanuts and sweet potatoes. As expected, the harvest was abundant. However, this led to another problem; since the commercial avenues of peanut products had not been discovered yet, there were no takers for the bumper crop. Carver then started his untiring and revolutionary research. His research not only brought peanuts to the forefront of the agricultural industry, but also helped revitalize the soil previously laden with incessant cultivation of cotton.
✿ He invented several food substitutes from his beloved peanuts, such as butter, mayonnaise, salad oil, flours etc. According to some biographers, he once had his students prepare a meal for the local farmers entirely from peanut products. He revealed the secret after the meal, much to the astonishment of the congregation.
✿ He invented dyes of more than 100 different types from agricultural crops. Initially, textile dyes were imported from Europe. Carver's research enabled the US to produce its own dyes, thus enabling it to divert valuable funds elsewhere.
✿ He invented the process for making paints and stains out of soy bean.
✿ He invented several cosmetic products from peanuts, including soaps, shaving creams, oils, shampoos and lotions.
✿ His research on peanuts also yielded numerous products with medical applications. He formulated a goiter treatment from peanuts, as well as laxatives and antiseptic soaps.
✿ He also produced several peanut products with considerable commercial value. These included paints, paper, ink, glue, plastics and rubber.
✿ Even the waste from peanuts didn't go unnoticed; he created coke and charcoal from the hull and shells, respectively.
✿ He invented vinegar and coffee substitutes.
✿ He also invented wheatpaste, candies and flours from sweet potatoes.
✿ He invented the "Cook Stove Chemistry". This was formulated to improve the diet of the families who could not afford meat. He encouraged the consumption of cow peas and peanuts as alternative sources of protein.
Carver's efforts made him popular as 'Tuskegee Peanut Man'. In 1977, Carver was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. In 1990, he became the first African-American to receive a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. Due to his invaluable contribution to the field, he is credited as the Father of Chemurgy (the science of creating commercial products from raw agricultural products). Some even consider him the inventor of the field.
Carver passed away on January 5, 1943. He had donated his entire life savings -- $60,000 (more than 1 million in 2012) -- to the Carver Museum and the George Washington Carver Foundation.
His epitaph perfectly sums up the life of one of the most genius, dedicated and selfless minds of the 20th century:
He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.