Remembering George Washington Carver, the revolutionary agricultural scientist who died on this day in 1943

Bruno Goes January 05, 2023
George Washington Carver, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Photo credit: World History Archive / Alamy

Today marks the anniversary of the death of George Washington Carver, an agricultural scientist and inventor who revolutionized the farming industry. Born into slavery before it was outlawed, Carver pursued education and eventually earned a master’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State University. He went on to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University for decades, and after his death, his childhood home was named a national monument – the first of its kind to honor a Black American.

Carver was born on a farm near Diamond, Missouri, the exact date of Carver’s birth is unknown, either January or June of 1864. When he was an infant, Carver and his mother and sister were kidnapped and sold in Kentucky. Carver’s white farm owner, Moses Carver, hired a neighbor to retrieve them, but the neighbor only succeeded in finding George, whom he purchased in exchange for one of Moses’ finest horses. Carver grew up knowing little about his mother or father, who had died in an accident before he was born.

Moses and his wife Susan raised Carver and his brother James as their own, teaching them how to read and write. James focused on working the fields with Moses, while Carver, who was frail and sickly, learned domestic skills from Susan such as cooking, gardening, and how to concoct simple herbal medicines. Carver took a keen interest in plants at a young age and became known as the “the plant doctor” due to his ability to improve the health of local farmers’ gardens, fields, and orchards.

Carver left the farm at age 11 to attend an all-Black school in Neosho. Disappointed with the education he received there, Carver moved to Kansas a few years later and put himself through school, eventually graduating from Minneapolis High School in Kansas in 1880. He applied to Highland College in Kansas but was rejected when the administration learned he was Black. In the late 1880s, Carver befriended the Milhollands, a white couple in Iowa, who encouraged him to pursue higher education. He enrolled in Simpson College, a Methodist school that admitted all qualified applicants, and initially studied art and piano. One of his professors, Etta Budd, encouraged him to apply to the Iowa State Agricultural School to study botany.

In 1894, Carver became the first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. Impressed by his research on soybean plant fungal infections, his professors asked him to stay on for graduate studies. Carver received his master’s degree in 1896 and became the first Black faculty member at Iowa State. In 1896, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee University, where he remained for 47 years.

At Tuskegee, Carver developed hundreds of products using peanuts (though not peanut butter, as is often claimed), sweet potatoes, and soybeans. He also created crop rotation techniques that helped restore soil fertility, leading to the development of a thriving peanut and sweet potato industry in the South. In addition to his scientific contributions, Carver was known for his dedication to education and his desire to empower others. He developed a “learn-by-doing” curriculum that allowed students to gain practical skills while also learning about agriculture and scientific principles.

Carver’s impact extended beyond the classroom. He advised presidents and Congress on agriculture and was a member of several professional organizations. In 1923, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal, which is given annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to the African American who has made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years.

Carver’s legacy lives on today, with his childhood home being designated as a national monument in 1953 – the first of its kind to honor a Black American. In 1977, Carver was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President Jimmy Carter.

George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943 at the age of 78. The cause of his death is not clear, but he had been in poor health for several years due to a number of illnesses, including several hospitalizations for pneumonia. Despite his poor health, Carver remained dedicated to his work and continued to teach and conduct research at Tuskegee University until his death. His funeral was attended by thousands, and he was recognized for his many achievements and contributions to agriculture and education.

Despite his many achievements and contributions, Carver faced numerous challenges and obstacles due to the racial discrimination of the time. He was often denied opportunities and recognition that were given to his white counterparts. However, he remained dedicated to his work and to helping others, and his impact on agriculture and education continues to be felt today.

As we remember the life and work of George Washington Carver on this day, let us reflect on the barriers he overcame and the enduring legacy he left behind. His dedication to education and to using science to improve the lives of others serves as an inspiration to us all.

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