Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Model Scientist

Note: I corrected some factual errors from the original posting.

When I recently taught my graduate Research Methods course, I told the students that George Washington Carver was a model scientist. None of them had ever heard of him. Of course most of the students were from Asia and Africa, but even the American students had never heard of him. Those of you out there who teach, let us keep the memory of George Washington Carver alive. If you know a teacher, let them know about this blog entry, or encourage them to read on their own about this great scientist.

Carver was a great scientist not just for his research but because (1) his research focused on turning the agricultural produce of poor rural people into value-added products that would increase their income and (2) he persisted in the face of prejudice. He was good enough to work in a major university, but he could not, because he was black. However, he found his calling at Tuskegee Institute, helping poor rural black farmers in the South.

The George Washington Carver National Monument, at Carver’s birthplace, is near Interstate 44 in western Missouri. I’ll bet it is the only national monument in honor of a botanist, and one of the few that does not honor a military hero or battle.

Here is the entry that I wrote for Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, which was never published:

Carver, George Washington
Botanist, chemist, agriculturalist

George Washington Carver devoted his life to the study of agricultural plants, specifically for the benefit of former slaves and sharecroppers in the poor rural South of the United States. His studies benefited poor rural farmers in two ways: first, by improving techniques of production, which increased the farmers’ chances of self-sufficiency; second, by inventing new markets for their products. Carver is widely considered a hero among scientists, because he overcame personal privations and connected pure scientific research directly to the improvement of the lives of disadvantaged humans.

Carver was born as a slave in Missouri. His birthdate is unknown, because vital statistics of slaves were not always recorded. Along with his mother and sister, he was kidnapped by Confederate soldiers and sold in Arkansas. The others died, and Carver barely survived. He was returned to his master. Carver’s recurring respiratory illness after the Civil War meant that, instead of doing heavy farm labor with the other sharecroppers and freed slaves, Carver had time to wander the fields and make observations. He became so knowledgeable about plants that his neighbors called him “the Plant Doctor.” The local school in Diamond Grove (present day Diamond), Missouri did not permit black children, so Carver walked almost ten miles to a black school in Neosho. He stayed with a black family named Watkins, there so he didn’t need to walk twenty miles a day for education. His love of plants inspired him to also become an artist. Mariah Watkins told Carver he should learn all he could and come back to help his people. Carver went to Kansas to continue his education. When he witnessed the murder of a black man by a white gang, he fled to another city, where he finished high school. He studied art at Simpson College, but was advised that he would be better at science than at art.

Carver was the first black student at Iowa State University, where he studied botany and graduated in 1894. His mentors were so impressed with him that he stayed to earn a Master’s degree in 1896. His work at the Agricultural Experiment Station earned him national recognition in the study of fungal diseases of crop plants. In 1896, the president of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, educator Booker T. Washington, convinced Carver to join the Tuskegee faculty. Carver remained there for 47 years, until his death in 1943.

The soil in Alabama had been depleted by cotton farming. Carver developed systems of crop rotation, in which cotton was alternated with other crops, such as sweet potatoes, so that the soil could build back up. Crop rotation with legumes, especially peanuts, was particularly important.  Carver also developed many new uses for crops for food and industry. He developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, including glue, dyes, ink, varnish, and new foods, which included sauces, but (contrary to popular belief) did not include peanut butter. He did similar research for other Southern crops, including sweet potatoes and pecans. He also developed improvements in adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, paper, plastic, shaving cream, shoe polish, and synthetic rubber. He received three patents (one for cosmetics, and two for paints). Carver did not, however, keep a laboratory notebook, and exact formulas for his procedures are largely unknown. To teach the farmers how to use their land better and to create new markets, Carver established an agricultural extension system of advice and laboratory research, modeled after the system in Iowa.

Carver was not well known in the United States even though former president Theodore Roosevelt praised him (at Booker T. Washington’s funeral) in 1915. He was, however, better known in England, where he was elected to the Royal Society of Arts, one of the few Americans to receive that honor at that time. He became famous when he testified with impressive intelligence before a committee of the U.S. Congress about the many uses he had developed for the peanut. Three American presidents met with him. The crown prince of Sweden studied agriculture under him for three weeks, and the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi also studied with him. Industrialist Henry Ford financed a laboratory for Carver, and worked alongside him in the development of soy-based rubber and synthetic automobile fuel.

After Carver’s death on January 5, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated a national monument to him in Missouri. It is one of the few national sites dedicated to the honor and memory of a black American and perhaps the only one to a botanist.

Further Reading

Kremer, Gary R., ed. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.

No comments:

Post a Comment