Monday, November 11, 2019

George Washington Carver

You have probably heard of George Washington Carver (1864-1943) as the early-twentieth-century Peanut Man who developed hundreds of commercial products from peanuts, and from other southern United States crops, in his laboratory at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But these products were probably the least important part of his work, at that time and in his legacy today. He is also remembered as the black man who earned respect from whites who might otherwise have dismissed blacks as an inferior, perhaps uneducable, race. I have recently posted a video about Carver, filmed at his birthplace.

Carver had a brilliant mind for botany and chemistry. He was also a teacher whom his students loved, because he was humble despite his vast knowledge, and he cared individually about each student. He wanted each student to experience scientific discovery for themselves. While most science teachers today take this approach, it was uncommon in Carver’s day.

The fame was as much for his personal story as for his scientific work. He was born into slavery just before the end of the Civil War, then kidnapped. His owner got him back in exchange for a horse. After the war, George’s owner raised him as one of his own children. He struggled for years to get an education from whatever school would allow a black man to learn. He was the only black student at Iowa State University. His mentors there wanted him to stay as a faculty member, but instead he accepted a call from Booker T. Washington to join the Tuskegee faculty.

For much of his career, Carver labored in obscurity. Tuskegee president Booker T. Washington was impatient with Carver’s disorganized approach to college duties. Whenever Carver accomplished more, Booker T. Washington always thought of something more that he ordered Carver to do. At one point, even though Carver spent every waking moment working for the institute, Washington told Carver he needed to repair the bathrooms. Washington’s regimented and disciplined approach to everything conflicted with Carver’s slower and more thoughtful approach.

Then in 1921, Carver testified before the federal House Ways and Means Committee about all the food and industrial products that could be made from peanuts. The committee was interested because World War I had interrupted many imports into the United States, and they wanted to know what “home-grown” products we could have in the event of a future war. Even though these products ended up not being marketed, the committee was very impressed with this humble and brilliant man. From that point, Carver became a celebrity, and his fame spread worldwide.

Once at Tuskegee, Carver showed his ability to produce excellent work with almost no resources. Though he eventually had a lot of glassware for his teaching and research laboratories, he had literally nothing to work with when he first arrived. So, he found a whiskey bottle at the dump. He tied a string around the middle. He cooled the bottle in cold water, then lit the string on fire. The fire made the cold bottle crack in two. The top half was a funnel, the bottom half a beaker.

By the end of his life, Carver was receiving many prizes and worldwide recognition. Meanwhile, in American society, the legal rights for black people were becoming ever more restricted. After an initial period of openness after the Civil War, southern states found ways to prevent blacks from voting, and they ended up with almost no political voice. While Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were widely admired, most white people considered them individual exceptions from their otherwise benighted race.

Max Otto (see previous essay) quoted Russell Lord’s “deeply disturbing” book Behold Our Land. Lord wrote about the soil erosion, which ruined the livelihoods of poor farmers, that was going on “under the eye of a teaching and research staff of considerable distinction; and yet it all was, and is, by them completely ignored. They go right on teaching their geology, their botany, their zoology, their chemistry and physics, their archaeology, their Greek and Latin and English, with no thought or mention of the tragic transformation of the good green country roundabout.” Maybe Lord referred to the major universities, but George Washington Carver was the exact opposite of this disconnected academic lassitude.

Carver never sought fame (though it came to him) or fortune (which he had opportunities to refuse). He lived in a small room on the Tuskegee campus. Books were stacked floor to ceiling in the corner. He had a display case for his crochet work. Rocks and stalactites covered a table, and flowers crowded his window box. His personal space reminds me of my own.

I chose George Washington Carver as my favorite scientist in my recent book. The main reason was not so much because of his scientific research, which was creative but not of the highest quality, as for his motivation. He believed that scientific research at a university should prove directly helpful to the people living around it, and to the world in general. The inspiration of his peanut research (and also research on sweet potatoes and pecans) was to allow poor farmers to produce value-added products, at home, that they could sell for more money than peanuts. He also did research, and taught local farmers, about how to preserve soil fertility, so that they could produce more from each of their acres. This is also one of my main motivations in teaching and research. Like Carver, I am a mediocre scientific researcher, but my heart is in outreach to the wider community, opening their eyes to the wonders and practical benefits of science.

All this, despite the fact that Carver did not really follow what nearly every scientist in his day and today would consider good scientific method. That is the topic of the next essay.

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