Photo by Melody

George Washington Carver, An American Botanist, An American Legend

By Paul Rodman (paulgrowJune 5, 2013

Born into slavery in a small Missouri town, George Washington Carver would become one of the most notable botanists in the world. Letís take a stroll through his life and view the many contributions G.W. made to the American farmer and the world in general.

Gardening picture

Around 1864 or 1865 (birth records were sketchy during this era) George Washington Carver was born to Mary and Giles Carver who were slaves owned by Moses Carver on the Carver farm near Diamond Grove, Missouri.

       G.W. Carver Birthplace

After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised George and his older brother James as their own children. They encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits, and "Aunt Susan" taught him the basics of reading and writing.

The public schools of Diamond Grove did not allow black children to attend at this point in time. George decided he would attend a school in Neosho some 10 miles away that allowed African Americans. He was befriended by a kind woman Mariah Watkins who rented him a room. This woman and Carver would become great friends and one statement that she made to him would leave a lifelong impression "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people."

At the age of 13, due to his desire to attend an academy there, he relocated to the home of another foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas, but after witnessing a black man killed by a group of whites, Carver left the city. He attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.

After several unsuccessful attempts to find a college that would accept him Carver ended up in Beeler, Kansas where he homesteaded a small plot of land. At this location he began his study of botany by maintaining a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. He manually plowed 17 acres of the claim, planting rice, corn, and garden produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery.

He also earned money by odd jobs in town and worked as a farm hand.

In 1888, Carver obtained a $300 bank loan for education. Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver's talent for painting flowers and plants; she encouraged him to study Botany at Iowa State University. When he began in 1891. He was the first black student, and later taught as the first black faculty member.


After receiving his Bachelor of Science and Master's degrees he continued working at Iowa State. He worked at the experimental station on plant pathology and mycology. In 1896  his work gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist.

In 1896 Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, hired Carver to head up the agriculture department at Tuskegee.

During this period the "cash crop" of the south was cotton. Farmers planted cotton year after year in the same locations. The problem with this is, cotton consumes huge amounts of nitrogen which was quickly depleted in the fields throughout the south. This along with attacks on the cotton crops by the boll weevil had farmers in a panic.

Carver developed his crop rotation method, which alternated nitrate producing legumes-such as peanuts and peas with cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients. Following Carver's lead, southern farmers soon began planting peanuts one year and cotton the next. While many of the peanuts were used to feed livestock, large surpluses quickly developed. Carver then developed 325 different uses for the extra peanuts-from cooking oil to printers ink; the hundreds of products he invented included plastics, paints, dyes and even a kind of gasoline.

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In 1920, Carver delivered a speech before the Peanut Growers Association, attesting to the wide potential of peanuts. The following year, he testified before Congress in support of a tariff on imported peanuts. With the help of Carver's testimony, the proponents of the tariff were able to institute it in 1922. 

He discovered that the sweet potato and the pecan also enriched depleted soils, and Carver found almost 20 uses for these crops, including synthetic rubber and material for paving highways.

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George Washington Carver used his celebrity status to promote scientific causes for the remainder of his life. He wrote a syndicated newspaper column and toured the nation, speaking on the importance of agricultural innovation, the achievements and example of Tuskegee, and the possibilities for racial harmony in the United States.

During his more than four decades at Tuskegee, Carver's official published works consisted mainly of 44 practical bulletins for farmers. His first bulletin in 1898 was on feeding acorns to farm animals. His final bulletin in 1943 was about the peanut. He also published six bulletins on sweet potatoes, five on cotton, and four on cowpeas. Some other individual bulletins dealt with alfalfa, wild plum, tomato, ornamental plants, corn, poultry, dairying, hogs, preserving meats in hot weather, and nature study in schools.

 In 1943 Carver took a bad fall down a flight of stairs; he was found unconscious by a maid who took him to a hospital. Carver died several days later at the age of 78 from complications resulting from this fall. He was buried next to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee University.


On his grave was written, "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."
At the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis a monument stand with some of George Washington Carver's favorite quotes.

  • Be clean both inside and out.
  • Neither looks up to the rich nor down on the poor.
  • Lose, if need be, without squealing.
  • Win without bragging.
  • Always be considerate of women, children, and older people.
  • Be too brave to lie.
  • Be too generous to cheat.

Thank you George Washington for all you did.


  About Paul Rodman  
Paul RodmanPaul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program. Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic web site. He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years. He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan. His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.

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