George Washington Carver: From Peanuts to Presidents

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vein conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interest, but also to the interest of others.”  Phil 2:3 & 4

The boll weevil, a nasty beetle that reproduces at an alarming rate, was making its way across the Southern United States in the early 1900’s. There was nothing farmers could do to stop this pest from decimating their cotton crops.

However, a very forward thinking agricultural professor in Alabama was determined to do something about it. What was unusual, especially at this time in America’s history, was that he was black.

George Washington Carver was born to slave parents in 1864, a year before the Civil War ended. He found himself an orphan, with frail health, so his white owner, George Carver, put him to work in his home instead of the fields. Mrs. Carver taught little George how to read and encouraged his natural curiosity for learning.

Since blacks weren’t allowed at the local public school. George, at the age of ten, walked sixteen kilometers (10 miles) to the next community that did. It was around this time that he prayed to receive Jesus, and as a result, developed a deep appreciation for God’s creation. He could draw and paint plants with studied detail. George even made his own paints out of local plants and berries.

ARTIST TURNED AGRICULTURIST

George studied art but was soon encouraged to go to Iowa State University and study botany. He became Iowa States first black student and then their first black professor. He believed that his faith in Christ helped him effectively pursue and perform the art of science.

By the age of 31 George was considered an expert agriculturist and was invited to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, an all black school, to be one of their professors. It was at Tuskegee that George made a discovery that changed farming, but even more so, helped his own people.

COTTON WAS KING!

After the Civil War ended in 1864 many blacks in the South became share croppers, working the land and growing cotton – the staple crop of America at the time. By 1902 George could see that the crop was depleting America’s soil. He also knew the boll weevil was fast approaching. He wanted to help them but cotton was king in the South!

So, while the poor share croppers worked their cotton fields from sun up to sundown, George worked in his lab at Tuskegee. He knew their salvation would be found in a lowly legume – the peanut. A plant that could withstand the voracious pest and also add nutrients to the depleted soil.

A NEW KIND OF SCIENCE

George came up with over 300 uses for the peanut in the form of soaps, shaving cream, soups, axle grease, paper, ink and so much more. He was on a mission. He published scientific papers, printed bulletins, all in an attempt to convince people of the benefits of planting peanuts. He traveled around the countryside educating black farmers.

However, not many were open to change – until the boll weevil arrived in Alabama.

By 1915 it had eaten its way through all the crops and by 1920 had made its way completely across America. This was the perfect time to introduce America to a new crop!

In 1921 George was asked to speak (for only ten minutes) before congress on the usability of the peanut. Congress was so impressed with his expertise on the subject that they encouraged him to continue – for an hour and a half! This was unheard of for a black man.

Within a few years peanut crops began spreading across the States. Today, 50,000 peanut farms thrive, mostly in the South. Because of George’s work, a new science called “chemurgy” was introduced. This is the process of discovering industrial uses for agricultural products. He also discovered over a hundred different uses for the sweet potato and the soy bean.

IN RECOGNITION OF…

Throughout his lifetime George received much recognition for his work. Amazing when you think of how most black people were segregated and treated as non-persons.

In fact, in 1939 he was given the Roosevelt Medal (named after President Theodore Roosevelt), which read, “To a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race and the black.”

In 1941, Henry Ford collaborated with him to develop ways to use the soy bean in making parts for his vehicles.

Thomas Edison offered George a six-figured salary to work for him, which he turned down and continued working for much less at Tuskegee.

A year before his death, at age 77, George met Franklin D. Roosevelt, in person, and was recognized, by the president, for his many accomplishments.

It is easy to say that George Washington Carver was a brilliant scientist but he was also a man of great humility and faith. Every accolade or award he received by giving credit to God, first and foremost. He also donated $60,000 (over a million dollars today) of his savings to create a foundation for agricultural research at Tuskegee.

George was recognized for his commitment to bettering the lives of his fellow man. The current Dean of Agricultural Science at Tuskegee University, Dr. Walter A. Hill, summed up George Washington Carver’s life by saying, “He was able to look around him and see raw materials and then see the human need that was out there and bring the two together.”

What an example of ‘doing nothing out of selfish ambition’ and ‘putting the interests of others above our own’ as Paul writes about in Philippians.

“When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.” George Washington Carver