Considered by many to be the father of the peanut industry, George Washington Carver’s life story is one of such immeasurable importance for the worlds of science and agriculture that it begins to blend myth and reality—and his accolades reflect it.
He was the first non-president and the first African American with a national monument. He’s been commemorated on stamps, coins, and even in the naming of schools and United States military vessels. But where does his real legacy live on? In the inventions and discoveries that we still use today.
So, it’s in his honor that we present a list of just a few of the Peanut Man’s greatest accomplishments.
Pioneering Crop Rotation
Due to the single-crop cultivation of cotton, the soil of many fields throughout the South had become depleted and more or less worthless. Carver’s solution was twofold: 1) urge farmers to plant peanuts and soybeans, which could restore nitrogen to the soil while 2) also providing much-needed protein in Southerners’ diets. This idea would go on to revolutionize agriculture, and save the livelihood of farmers for generations to come—especially after the devastation caused by storms in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.
Inventing 300 Uses for Peanuts
With the sudden abundance of peanuts in markets, supply became much greater than demand. That is, until Carver took action once again. Thanks to a long program of laboratory research, Carver would invent over 300 products derived from peanuts, including milk, flour, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, oils and cosmetics. To understand the importance of Carver’s contributions, you only have to look at his results: in 1896, before his ideas were implemented, the peanut was not even officially recognized as a crop. By 1940, it was one of the six leading crops in the United States, and the second in the South.
Becoming the “Peanut Man”
While Carver’s research involved a variety of topics, it was an appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee in 1921 that solidified his association with the humble legume.
While the committee was initially unreceptive, Carver’s words on peanuts and the need for a tariff would eventually win them over. How? By drawing them in with the variety of uses he’d discovered for peanuts, of course! After that, Carver and peanuts would be inexorably linked in the public’s eye.
A Respected Counsel Among History’s Great Names
Throughout his life, George Washington Carver’s reputation grew as successfully as any of his crops. In 1896, Booker T. Washington invited him to oversee the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute—a post he would occupy for over 40 years. President Theodore Roosevelt was a great admirer of Carver’s work, often seeking his advice on the nation’s agricultural matters. Similarly, Mr. Carver also briefly served as a nutritional advisor for Mahatma Gandhi during his early years as leader of the Indian independence movement.
Service Above All
While he would become widely known for his accomplishments, fame and fortune were not among Carver’s pursuits. In fact, of all his inventions, Carver only ever filed three patents. “One reason I never patent my products is that if I did, it would take so much time I would get nothing else done,” he explained. “But mainly I don’t want any discoveries to benefit specific favored persons. I think they should be available to all peoples.”
When asked what motivated him, Carver replied “Someday I will have to leave this world. And when that day comes, I want to feel that my life has been of some service to my fellow man.”
After his passing in 1943, it would seem that Carver, as he did so many times throughout his life, succeeded at what he set out to do.
And the world he left was made so much better for it.