|George Washington Carver in 1906|
Carver was born into slavery in the early 1860s, near Diamond Grove Missouri. His owner was a German immigrant named Moses Carver, who also owned his mother and brother. His father died in an accident when he was very young. When George was an infant, he and his mother were kidnapped by thieves who hoped to sell him elsewhere. He was returned to the farm, reputedly in exchange for a racehorse. His mother was lost. This episode caused a bout of respiratory disease that left him with a permanently weakened constitution. Because of this, he was unable to work as a field hand and spent his time working in the garden. He became so knowledgeable as a child that he was known in his neighborhood as "the plant doctor".
When freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, his name changed from Carver's George to George Carver. He worked on his former master's farm and taught himself to read and write before going on to earn a high-school diploma at Minneapolis High School in Kansas. He was accepted to Simpson College in 1887, and then transferred to Iowa State University (then Iowa State Agricultural College) where he earned bachelor's (1891) and master's (1894) degrees. He used the name George W. Carver in his correspondence, and when requested to provide a middle name chose Washington.
While in college, he showed a strong aptitude for singing and art, as well as for science, and could possibly have chosen a career in any of the three fields.
Taking an interest in the plight of poor Southern farmers working with soil depleted by repeated crops of cotton. Carver advocated employing the nitrogen cycle by alternating cotton crops with legume planting, such as peanuts,to restore nitrogen to the soil. Thus, the cotton crop was improved and new cash crops added. He developed an agricultural extension system in Alabama to train farmers in raising these crops and an industrial research laboratory to develop uses for them.
In order to make these new crops profitable, Carver devised numerous new uses for the new crops, including more than 300 uses for the peanut ranging from glue to printer's ink, however contrary to popular belief this list does not include peanut butter. He made similar investigations into uses for plants such as sweet potatoes and pecans.
He often said that if all other foods were gone from the earth, the peanut and sweet potato alone could provide sufficient food, in both nutrition and in variety of preparation, to sustain humans indefinitely.
Carver Hall at Iowa State University, and Carver Science Building at Simpson College are named after him. He appeared on US commemorative stamps in 1947 and 1998 and was depicted on a commemorative half-dollar in 1951.