Famous Bis: George Washington Carver
February 24, 2023
Before we get into anything else about the brilliance that was George Washington Carver, let’s get one thing straight: He did not invent peanut butter! Yes, he was known by the American public as the “Peanut Man” (we’ll get into the important reasons why in a moment) and while he was a genius as far as finding out how to utilize that legume, it was not his invention. So instead, let’s focus on the stupendous and very real contributions the brilliant and bi scientist made to society and agriculture instead of focusing on debunked myths.
Before I get into divulging the life story of this botanist and pioneer, I should reiterate that this will be a cursory look at his life and works. Due to the brevity of this article, I will not be able to cover the entire scope of his influence or every indelibly cool part of his narrative. Please forgive me in advance and instead think of this article as a jumping-off point in your own exploration of Carver’s life. I should note, however, that if this is your first time learning about this impactful scientist, there will be descriptions of slavery and racial prejudice which are important to discuss the trajectory of this black man’s life and career in America.
Born into slavery near the end of the Civil War (Carver was his slavers’ family name), George Washington and his mother were kidnapped when he was an infant. The patriarch of the Carver household sent an agent who was able to locate the child, but the mother was never found. George never saw his mother again.
Orphaned and growing up as a frail youth who was too weak for fieldwork, the Carver family (who enslaved his mother) raised him instead, allowing him to explore nature and teaching him how to read and write (no local schools would teach black children during this time). The matriarch of the family let him stay by her side as she tended the garden. Young George became so enamored of the earth, its flora and its potential, that a talent for saving plants emerged and became known throughout the local countryside. People would come from nearby to take their ailing plants to the “plant doctor” before he even knew what botany was.
Driven by a thirst for knowledge that could help others, George Washington Carver attended a series of schools before receiving his high school diploma in Minneapolis, Kansas. Though he was accepted to pursue college at a university in Highland, Kansas, he had applied by mail and was turned away when he arrived and the school learned that he was black. Undeterred, he homesteaded instead for a time and studied the plants there and, after a time, moved to Ames, Iowa to attend Simpson College where he fine-tuned his painting and drawing skills (you can guess as to what was his muse).
After admiring his work, a teacher encouraged him to apply to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study botany, which he did. He excelled so much in his studies there in botany and agriculture, he not only earned his bachelor’s but stayed on to earn his master’s degree as well.
In 1896, Booker T. Washington tapped Carver to run the agricultural department of his famous Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which he accepted and took to with fervor. Carver was determined to help as many people as he could, with a particular focus on freed black farmers across the South who were losing their hats in planting cotton, one of the few crops he knew. Through his work in regenerative agriculture, he was able to spread the gospel of diversifying crops like peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans, planting new crops with multiple uses (and giving up the ghost on cotton), and crop rotating which helps to keep nutrients in the soil from being completely depleted.
Aware that many of these sharecroppers and farmers might be unable to travel to the Institute or may have low literacy rates that could prevent total comprehension, Carver invented the Jesup wagon — a mobile classroom that could go from farm to farm to teach about different crops and soil samples. To increase access during more convenient times, he also made sure to offer night school classes and abbreviated agricultural conferences during non-harvest or less busy seasons.
Not only did he teach and spread this information, but he was unparalleled in finding new uses for many of these crops. Most notably, he found over 300 uses for — yes — peanuts as well as over a hundred uses for sweet potatoes. The former was especially helpful in staving off starvation and economic ruin during the Dust Bowl. Not just uses, but advice and recipes which he made easily available (he was notably not big on getting patents — it was an arduous process and one that led to exclusionary use — the antithesis of a scientist of the people).
So why the association with peanuts? Well, in 1920 Carver was offered a chance to speak to the House of Ways and Means Committee, who at first didn’t want much to do with him but were eventually completely won over by his arguments and enthusiasm. That encounter turned him into a household name.
Okay, all right, so this all makes him one of the most eligible bachelors of the 20th century, right? Sure. His friends often worked to set him up, to which he expressed more often interest in his work than getting a date. Still, for three years he dated Sarah L. Hunt until she moved for work across the country during World War II. A longtime campus companion of his was fellow scientist Austin W. Curtis, Jr. — often seen walking arm-in-arm across the campus, and Curtis serving as one of Carver’s greatest advocates. (Curtis also received all profits from his authorized biography.) But before someone here goes #AndTheyWereRoommates, it should be noted that it’s asserted and accepted by biographer Christina Vella that Carver was bi in a time when it was not easy for society to accept or handle, even of a man of his academic standing.
Carver passed in 1943, leaving a legacy that still feeds us to this very day. When he passed, FDR (whom he advised amongst a list of presidents) signed legislation to create the George Washington Carver National Monument — the first monument dedicated to a black man as well as a non-president. It can be found in Diamond, Missouri.
An early adopter of the farm-to-table concept and blueprint-maker to urban gardening, TedTalk and MasterClass teacher of guerrilla gardening, Ron Finley, credits Carver for his work — and hopes that his work will help foster the next generation of Carvers and innovative farmers.
I could go on and on about Carver — like the fact he crocheted and painted, and did tours as a pianist to raise money for the Tuskegee Institute, or that he turned down a sizable offer from Thomas Edison to come work for him — but I should always leave readers wanting more. Carver in particular is a fascinating historical figure to which we owe an immeasurable amount and deserves a deep dive from you online and/or at your local library. (Seriously, researching him for this article was a blast, and I don’t want to take that fun away from anyone with a curious mind.)
But for now, let’s appreciate the fact that the journey of this man saved a whole generation of farmers and still teaches us lessons (and recipes!) to this very day. George Washington Carver was a brilliant scientist, a bold and world-changing botanist, and he was bi.