The pioneering African American scientist, George Washington Carver, developed a keen interest in plants at an early age. Growing up in post-emancipation Missouri under the care of his parents' former owners, Carver collected a variety of wild plants and flowers, which he planted in a garden. At the age of ten, he left home of his own volition to attend a school for freed slaves in the nearby community of Neosho, where he did chores for an African American family in exchange for food and a place to sleep. He maintained his interest in plants while putting himself through high school in Minneapolis, Kansas, and during his first and only year at Simpson College in Iowa. During this period, he made many sketches of plants and flowers. He made the study of plants his focus in 1891, the year he enrolled at Iowa State College.
After graduating in 1894 with an degree in botany and agriculture, he spent two additional years at Iowa State to complete a master's degree in the same fields. During this time, he taught botany to undergraduate students and conducted extensive experiments on plants while managing the university's greenhouse. These experiences served him well during the first few years after he joined the faculty of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute.
Carver used scientific means to tackle the widespread poverty and malnutrition among the local African American farmers in south Alabama. Year after year, farmers had planted cotton on the same plots of land and thereby exhausted the topsoil's nutrients. By testing the soil, he discovered that a lack of nitrogen in particular accounted for consistently low harvests. While at Iowa State, Carver had learned that certain plants in the pea family extracted nitrogen from the air and deposited it in the soil. To maintain the topsoil's balance of nutrients, Carver advised farmers to alternate planting cotton and peanuts. This farming method proved effective and within a few years, farmers saw a dramatic increase in their crop production. Carver then created an outreach program in which he would travel once a month to rural parts of Alabama to give hands-on instruction to farmers in this and other innovative farming techniques.
Because of Carver's emphasis on the cultivation of the peanut, peanuts flooded the market and their prices dropped. This predicament presented Carver with yet another challenge--how to prevent farmers from resorting to the exclusive cultivation of cotton, which had a higher market value. Carver began to explore alternative uses for the peanut that would increase its market value. He developed over three hundred peanut products that included peanut butter, cheeses, flours, ice creams, and stains. Then, on this day in 1921, he helped the United Peanuts Growers Association persuade Congress to pass a bill calling for a protective tariff on imported peanuts.
The development of the peanut also helped Carver resolve the problem of malnutrition in the rural south. He stressed that the peanut was a valuable source of protein that could enrich farmers' diets and improve their health. As part of his extension program, Carver taught farmers' wives how to preserve food and prepare tasty, well-balanced meals. For many African American southerners who had never given thought to eating a tomato, which were once widely believed to be poisonous, Carver explained its nutritional value and demonstrated several recipes in which it could be used. Carver was also innovative with the sweet potato and the pecan, introducing approximately 100 uses for each of those two foods.
Carver translated his life-long love of plants into a powerful tool for economic, social, and cultural transformation. As he often told his Tuskegee students, "Every calling is a means for good. There are therefore no lowly callings."