Fame Did Not Diminish George Washington Carver

by Ted Kyle

Many have begun in humble circumstances, as did George Washington Carver; some have risen above their backgrounds to achieve greatness, as did George Washington Carver. But few indeed have won fame and remained sweetly humble, as Carver did. Carver was born-probably early in 1864, though the date is uncertain-into slavery on a farm in Diamond Grove, Missouri. When still an infant, both he and his mother were kidnapped by slave raiders. Carver was found and returned; his mother was never heard from again. A frail child, he was spared field work, and was able to roam the nearby woods, getting acquainted with the world of plant life. It was a fascination that never left him. Soon he was known as the "plant doctor," helping neighbors and friends with ailing plants. His tenth year was a crucial one for young Carver: it was his time of meeting Christ Jesus as Lord, and also saw the birth of his determination to secure a good education. Of his conversion, Carver later wrote: "God just came into my heart one afternoon, while I was alone in the loft of our big barn." Kneeling beside a barrel of corn, he prayed for Christ to become his Savior. Young Carver initially learned his letters at home, because there was no school for African Americans in Diamond Grove. But from his tenth year there was no holding him back. His thirst for knowledge led him to several communities in Missouri and Kansas, and then to Indianola, Iowa, where he enrolled at Simpson College to study piano and painting. Though he displayed real talent, his art instructor convinced him he should develop his horticultural talents, and in 1891 he enrolled at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (Iowa State University today). After graduation, he was appointed to the faculty, becoming Iowa State's first African American faculty member. Over the next two years, as assistant botanist for the College Experiment Station, he developed skills in plant pathology and mycology (the study of fungi) which brought him national respect. Following completion of his master's degree, he was invited by Booker T. Washington to join the faculty of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. It is reported that he received a salary of $125 per month-a figure which remained unchanged over the course of his long and illustrious career at Tuskegee, though Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, among others, attempted to recruit him with very large salary offers. He chose instead to work for the improvement of the quality of life for the disenfranchised. "If I took that money, I might forget my people," he explained. Southern fields were suffering from endlessly replanted cotton, resulting in severe soil depletion. Discovering ways to help Southern farmers diversify, and finding cash crops that did not rob the soil of nutrients, became a major goal of Carver's life. It led him to the peanut. "Why, I just took a handful of peanuts and looked at them. ‘Great Creator,' I said, ‘why did you make the peanut? Why?' With such knowledge as I had of chemistry and physics, I set to work to take the peanut apart. I separated the water, the fats, the oils, the gums, the resins, sugars, starches, pectoses, pentoses, pentosans, legumen, lysin, the amino and amido acids. There! I had the parts of the peanut all spread out before me. Then I merely went on to try different combinations of those parts…. The result was what you see-these 202 different products, all made from peanuts!" (from "Caring for the Fruits of Creation," by George Washington Carver.) Ultimately, his work resulted in the creation of 325 products from peanuts, more than 100 from sweet potatoes, and hundreds more from a dozen other plants abundant in the South. He never patented most of these discoveries. "God gave them to me; how can I sell them to someone else?" Carver died in 1943, a much-honored innovator, teacher, and public benefactor. This simple epitaph was placed on his tombstone: "He could have added fame to fortune, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to world." His own evaluation of his life is found in these words: "I have tried to keep the faith."