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GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER a.k.a THE PEANUT MAN

George W. Carver George W. Carver

George Washington Carver is one of the most celebrated, albeit much less talked about African-American scientists of all time. He was born in around 1864 to a slave mother in the U.S. city of Diamond, Missouri. His actual birthdate is not exactly verifiable but its taken to be 1964 since it was towards the end of the American Civil War. George's mother Mary had been bought as a 13 year old slave by German immigrant farmers, Moses and Susan Carver who owned the Diamond, Missouri farm. George's father is not exactly known but it was rumoured to have been one of the neighbouring farmer's slaves. George had an elder brother called Jim, but with a different father. Towards the end of the Civil War, George and his mother Mary were kidnapped by confederate soldiers. Moses and Susan Carver hired some Union Army Scouts to go and retrieve both of them. George was recovered, but his mother never came back.

At 12 years old, the Young Carver left Diamond for Neosho, a small town about 8 miles south of Diamond to attend School. Reports have it that at an early age he showed a keen interest in nature and often brought home a lot of specimen from the fields(live or otherwise), much to the chagrin of Moses and Susan Carver. He also showed a lot of interest in art, especially painting, and took it upon himself to develop his skills because there was no one to nurtue his passion. On December 22nd 1878, George earned a Certificate of Merit from the school in Neosho.

He then proceeded to Fort Scott Kansas, some 75 miles from Neosho to continue his education. The school in Fort Scott was a predominantly white school and the young Carver reportedly witnessed a lot of racial prejudice while there. He later transferred to a school in Minneapolis, Kansas in 1880. This too was a predominantly white school eventhough he found it more receptive than the Fort Scott school. It was here that he changed his name to George W. Carver because there was another student in the school sharing his exact name, and this led to a lot of mail mix-ups. When other students asked him what the middle W stood for, he casually replied Washington, eventhough he very rarely used that name.

In 1883 he returned to Diamond, Missouri to visit his masters(The Carvers). He was however met with the sad news of his step-brother Jim's death. At such an early age, he became devoid of any known blood relatives. He however kept up his spirits and pursued school further. He is recorded to have ended his High School studies in 1884 eventhough its not clear whether he fulfilled the requirements for a High School Diploma. In 1885 he moved to Kansas, where he got admission to Highland College in Highland, Kansas. This however proved to be a major embarrassment and dissapointment for the young George because when the college reviewed his application, they had assumed he was white. So when he showed up in person his admission was revoked, leaving him stranded out of state and with no money to return home. Luckily for him the U.S. Congress in May 1862 had passed the Homestead Act, to encourage people to buy land and settle westwards(former Indian territory). Under the Act people could live on the land, make improvements on it and buy it after 6 months for as little as $1.25 per acre. On October 20th 1886, after working hard and putting away some money, George took advantage of the program and purchased his own homestead in Beeler, Kansas. Beeler was also a predominantly white community but George fit in well, easily making friends.

In 1889, George left his Beeler homestead and wandered eastwards to Winterset, Iowa. At a Winterset church, he made friends with Dr. and Mrs John Milholland who encouraged him to pursue further his education. They particularly encouraged him to attend Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. In 1890, George W. Carver enrolled, with the help of the Milhollands, enrolled at Simpson College. In 1891, he transferred to Iowa State College of Agricultural & Mechanical Arts(Now Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa), becoming the first African-American student there. In 1894, he earned his B.sc. Degree in Agriculture from Iowa State College of Agricultural & Mechanical Arts. He continued his studies at the same college, earning his Masters Degree in Agriculture in 1896, before taking up a job as head of the new Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Tuskegee as you will remember was an all-black institution founded by Booker T. Washington. In fact it was Booker T. himself who lured Carver to join him at Tuskegee.

Carver built Tuskegee's Agricultural Laboratory literally from scratch, to become one of the nation's most respected labs. He is fondly remembered for the famous Jesup Wagon, a movable(mobile) school he set up at Tuskegee in 1906 to take his message to the farmers' doorsteps. One of his top messages to farmers was crop-rotation which helped to replenish nutrients in soil. He specifically urged farmers to rotate cotton with peanuts and sweet potatoes because cotton needed nitrogen which peanuts and sweet potatoes put back into the soil. Before this farmers grew cotton year long with less than desirable productivity. Old habits die hard so naturally the farmers were not very receptive to Carver's new idea of crop rotation initially. But nature seemed to be on Carver's side because after the Boll Weevil attack of the 1900's that destroyed massive cotton plantations, farmers were forced to look at alternative crops. Peanuts and sweet potatoes which Carver had suggested were top of the line.

It was also at Tuskegee that Carver began his revolutionary work on the various uses of Peanuts. His work with peanuts received so much acclaim that his new name became The Peanut Man. Through his research on peanuts he found out that peanuts could be used to produce both food and non-food items. Food items included breakfast foods, sauces, beverages, flour, pickles, candy, margarine and milk while non-food items ranged from shaving lotion, face powder, ink, axle grease, shampoo, wood filler, to metal polish. But Carver was not just The Peanut Man. He was the Sweet Potato Man too. Just like he did with peanuts, he also found various uses for sweet potatoes, both food and non-food. Food products that he found could be produced from sweet potatoes included breakfast foods, tapioca, molasses, vinegar, caramels and flour. Non-food products of sweet potatoes included starch, library paste, ink, shoe polish and wood-fillers. Carver's remarkable findings caught the eyes of non other than the U.S. government which at that time was interested in finding ways to produce flour from sweet potatoes, given the wheat shortages that were caused by World War I. The war made wheat scarce since it curtailed trans-atlantic trade.

In 1910 Carver came up with a new cotton hybrid that was named Carver's hybrid. Before Carter's hybrid, cotton usually came in two types, short-stalked and long-stalked. Short-stalked cotton usually produced fatter cotton balls(more produce) but was easily damaged during rainstorms(mud on the cotton balls). Long-stalked cotton could withstand the rainstorms but produced thinner cotton balls(less produce). Carter's hybrid thus becamme very popular because it was both tall-stalked and produced fatter cotton balls. So it withstood rainstorms while at the same time increasing cotton production.

But while everything was working out for Carver on the research front, not everything was rosy for him as a Tuskegee administrator. While he and Booker T. had the utmost respect for each other as prominent African-Americans, they had different management styles which sometimes set them on a collision course. Booker T. thought Carver was disorganized because he often handed reports to him late. Its hard to verify whether Carver was indeed disorganized but given the way brilliant scientists have been known to follow unorthodox procedures, Booker T. might have had a legitimate complaint after all. The same disorganization stereotype follows physicians to this day. Carver and Booker T. however were very dignified men and differences between them remained just that--administrative differences. They agreed to disagree on administrative matters without negatively impacting their personal relationship. As a matter of fact when Booker T. passed away in New York in 1915, Carver was very visibly shaken and knew he had to carry on with Tuskegee from where Booker T. left.

Carver's scientific achievements were recognized in 1916 when he won his first international award. He was elected fellow of England's Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturers & Commerce, making him the first African-American ever to receive such an honour. His reknown continued to grow when in 1918 he was invited to Washington, DC to address members of the U.S. Congress on ways to make flour out of sweet potatoes. This was to help in the war effort(World War I) since wheat was scarce. Carver's method of producing flour however proved to be more expensive than using wheat so the government stopped using sweet potatoes for flour after the world war.The government was also interested in Carver's method of dehydrating vegetables. Dehydrated vegetables were lighter and this made it easier for the military to carry overseas during war(World War I). Food dehydration however was not exactly Carver's invention because historians trace the practice way back to the 1st century Italians. Carver's role was vital nevertheless in reviving this age old practice.

In 1921 Carver was back in Washington, DC, this time to address the U.S. Senate Ways and Means Committee on the various uses of peanuts. He had come on behalf of the United Peanut Associations in Montgomery, Alabama. He gave a powerful presentation before the U.S. Senators most of whom had admittedly expressed less optimism as to his scientific expertise. After his Senate presentation, Carver became a national figure and his work began to get praise from all quarters. In 1923 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP) awarded him the Spingarn Award, the organization's highest honour, for his contributions to the scientific world. In 1928 his former school Simpson College conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Science Degree.

In 1935 the U.S. Department of Agriculture was seeking Carver to enlist his services as a collaborator in a plant disease survey. In 1935 a new science was also emerging called Chemurgy(today's equivalent of Bio-chemical Engineering). It focused on finding industrial uses for farm products. But this was something Carver had long begun working on and is why many people today still consider him to be the father of Bio-chemical Engineering.

In 1937 during ceremonies to mark his 40th anniversary at Tuskeegee Institute, a bronze sculpture of Carver was unveiled at the Institute. In 1939 he was awarded the Roosevelt Memorial Award for his contributions to southern Agriculture. He was also elected an honorary member of the American inventors society. He also founded the George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee Institute, which he hoped would preserve his work for future generations. The other reason why he began working on the museum was his poor health. Carver at this point was at an advanced age and he knew he didnt have long to live. Tuskegee Institute donated an old Laundry building to be used for the Museum. In 1940 he established the George Washingtonn Carver Foundation for Research. In March 1941, Mr & Mrs Henry Ford travelled to Tuskegee to officially dedicate the George Washington Carver Museum. In December 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Carver's contributions again took centerstage with the ensuing world food shortage. The same situation had happened during World War I.

The Great George Washington Carver died on January 5th 1943 and was buried on the Tuskegee Institute Campus near the grave of Booker T. Washington. Then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation declaring Carver's place of birth(Diamond, Missouri) a national monument. This was a tremendous honour bestowed on the African-American scientist given the fact that before him only U.S. Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had such an honour bestowed on them. His liking has also been placed on postage stamps and 50 cent coins. His legend continues long after his death, evidence of which came in 1976 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in New York City. He became the second African-American after Booker T. to receive such an honour. In 1990, 47 years after his death, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Carver was clearly a extra-ordinary scientist and all people of African descent need to remember his contributions both to science and our race.

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