Born into slavery, George Washington Carver became one of America’s most distinguished scientists and inventors. TIME Magazine called him “the black Leonardo da Vinci.”
Carver’s work at the helm of the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department included groundbreaking research on plant biology, much of which focused on the development of new uses for crops including peanuts, sweet potatoes, soybeans and pecans. Carver invented hundreds of products, including more than 300 from peanuts (milk, plastics, paints, dyes, cosmetics, medicinal oils, soap, ink, wood stains) and 118 from sweet potatoes (molasses, postage stamp glue, flour, vinegar and synthetic rubber) and even a type of gasoline. At the time, cotton production was on the decline in the South; overproduction of a single crop had left many fields exhausted and barren. Carver suggested planting peanuts and soybeans, both of which could restore nitrogen to the soil, along with sweet potatoes. While these crops grew well in southern climates, there was little demand. Carver’s inventions and research solved this problem and helped struggling sharecroppers in the South, many of them former slaves now faced with necessary cultivation.
Carver was not just a brilliant botanist, he was a humanitarian. He put his natural gifts to work focusing on how to help his neighbor. His research focused on ways to help solidify the livelihoods of poor farmers in the South, many of them former slaves like himself. His epitaph reads: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”