George Washington Carver: An Innovator Beyond His Era

By: Mark Boyer  | 
George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver earned great fame as an inventor and director of the Agriculture Department of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Bettman/Getty Images

Few famous Americans enjoy a status as mythic as that of George Washington Carver, a man whose life as a botanist, agronomist, chemist and inventor earned him a lasting place in the history books.

Nicknamed the "Black Leonardo" by TIME Magazine in 1941, Carver is one of the most revered figures in early 20th century Black American history, and his work at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama is considered instrumental in changing Southern approaches to agriculture.


His brilliance offered a fresh perspective on agriculture and also paved the way for sustainable farming practices and economic uplift for countless farmers.

Carver's Early Life and Educational Journey

George Washington Carver was born around 1864 near Diamond Grove, Missouri, under conditions of servitude. As a young boy, he had a deep fascination with plants and spent a lot of his time studying and experimenting with them. He developed a reputation in his local community for his ability to diagnose and treat plant diseases, which led to him being called "The Plant Doctor."

His educational journey began at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, where he attended for a short time before transferring to Iowa State Agricultural College (now known as Iowa State University) in Ames, Iowa, in 1891. In fact, he became the first Black American student to enroll at Iowa State.


After completing his undergraduate studies, Carver pursued a master's degree in agricultural science at the same institution. It was during this time that he conducted research and made significant contributions to the field of agriculture.

Despite the racial challenges he faced during his time, Carver went on to establish himself as a pioneering Black American scientist at the school. While he is widely celebrated for his groundbreaking work with peanuts, Carver's research extended to other crops like soybeans and sweet potatoes.

The Tuskegee Institute

In 1896, Carver accepted an invitation from Booker T. Washington to lead the Agriculture Department at the recently formed Tuskegee Institute, where he would remain — teaching and conducting laboratory work — for most of his life.

At Tuskegee, George Washington Carver's work included serving as a teacher, testing crop varieties and fertilizers, writing bulletins for farmers and managing research at his experiment station.

Within the esteemed walls of Tuskegee, Carver's multifaceted talents shone brightly. He wasn't just an educator imparting knowledge; he was an experimenter, rigorously testing various crop varieties and exploring the efficacy of different fertilizers. With a keen understanding of the challenges local farmers faced, Carver penned informative bulletins, offering them insights and advice.

His commitment extended to hands-on research at his experiment station, where he sought to discover and propagate sustainable agricultural practices. Under his stewardship, the Tuskegee Institute's agricultural initiatives flourished, becoming a beacon of innovation and knowledge for the broader farming community.

Working With Cotton

While much of Carver's work was devoted to promoting alternatives to cotton for Southern farmers, he didn't completely dismiss the plant. At Tuskegee, he experimented with different varieties of cotton and issued bulletins instructing farmers on crop rotation to rejuvenate cotton fields. He also developed cotton fiber for rope, twine and paper and made a road-paving surface from cotton stalks.

Indeed, few things missed Carver's gaze, as he is credited with making a range of products as varied as concrete reinforcing built from sawdust, wood shavings, synthetic marble and vegetable dyes.


Innovating at the Experiment Station

Carver recognized that widespread monoculture of cotton among Southern farmers was stripping the soil of nutrients, leading to erosion and leaving Black farmers destitute. So he decided to devote much of his energy to studying the use of natural fertilizers and nutrient-restoring techniques, like crop rotation, as well as promoting alternatives to cotton, like sweet potatoes and peanuts.

At his experiment station, Carver worked to develop new uses for those alternative crops. Hoping to spark an increased demand for them, he created products as varied as soaps and cosmetics to adhesives, greases and paints. In the Tuskegee area, Carver collected different types of clays and extracted the pigments from them to produce several types of house paints [source: National Park Service].


At his experiment station, he also produced several different types of paper, a synthetic marble made of wood shavings, a type of road paving made from cotton, and an array of adhesives, greases, plastics, soaps and cosmetics.

Although Carver is credited with inventing hundreds of new uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts, few of his inventions ever caught on commercially, and he didn't file patents for the vast majority of his work.

It was only after his teaching load greatly diminished in the 1920s that Carver made a serious effort to market any of his inventions, forming the Carver Products Company with several Atlanta businessmen. However, the company only ended up patenting three inventions — two for paint and one for cosmetics — the only patents in Carver's name.

Over time, countless books (mostly written for kids) have helped to spread the legend of Carver's accomplishments, while most of his actual inventions have drifted into obscurity.


The Father of Chemurgy

Since his death in 1943, Carver has been dubbed "the father of chemurgy" (more commonly known as biochemical engineering today), a type of chemistry that takes agricultural raw materials and converts them into nonfood industrial and consumer products. The word was coined in the 1930s, soon after Carver's rise to national and international fame.

Carver's interest in chemurgy was driven heavily by his desire to identify new uses for non-cotton Southern crops. Despite less-than-ideal conditions, cotton was firmly positioned as the primary cash crop in the South, and Carver recognized that the best way to stoke demand for other crops, like peanuts and sweet potatoes, would be to promote new uses for them.


Even in his day, Carver recognized the limits of petroleum and the value of producing industrial products from renewable resources.

"I believe the Great Creator has put oil and ores on this earth to give us a breathing spell," Carver is widely quoted as having said. "As we exhaust them, we must fall back on our farms, which is God's true storehouse and can never be exhausted. For we can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow" [source: African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center].


Carver and the Peanut

No plant captured Carver's imagination quite as much as the peanut, and his legendary 1921 appearance before the House Ways and Means Committee earned him the nickname "The Peanut Man." Accounts vary widely as to how many different uses Carver actually developed for the peanut and how original his discoveries actually were.

At Tuskegee, Carver published a bulletin titled "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption" to promote various uses and recipes for peanuts. He later claimed to have a mental catalogue of more than 300 uses of peanuts (Carver didn't believe in keeping written lists).


However, as historian Barry Mackintosh noted in a 1977 article, many of Carver's peanut uses were unoriginal, and peanut production had already been well established in the South before Carver took up the cause. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had detailed the plant's potential value in a comprehensive bulletin in 1896 [source: USDA].

A Host of Uses

Carver compiled dozens of peanut recipes and different uses for the plant, including cheese, milk, coffee, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils and cosmetics, and he even claimed to have developed a type of peanut nitroglycerine.

One of the recipes that Carver was proudest of was peanut milk, a nutritious and inexpensive alternative to dairy milk that he believed had "unlimited possibilities." However, Englishman William J. Melhuish had already patented a similar peanut milk process in 1917.

In 1922, Carver developed a medication called Penol, which was an emulsion of peanuts creosote (a liquid distilled from wood tar). The product was supposed to cure respiratory disorders, but was later proven to be ineffective.

Although many of the uses and applications for peanuts that Carver championed were untraditional, peanuts continued to be sold and used almost entirely as foodstuffs.

Recipe: Peanut and Prune Ice Cream

Want to make a real George Washington Carver original? Try whipping up a batch of peanut prune ice cream.


  • 2 cups (473 milliliters) milk
  • 3 egg yolks
  • ½ pound (227 grams) pulp from well-cooked and sweetened prunes
  • 1 quart (950 milliliters) heavy cream
  • ½ cup (118 milliliters) of blanched and ground peanuts
  • 1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) vanilla extract.

In Carver's own words: "Heat the milk; pour it into the well-beaten egg yolk; blend all the other ingredients thoroughly." And of course: "Freeze and serve in dainty glasses" [source: Bulletin No. 31, 1925].


Carver and the Sweet Potato

Of course, the peanut wasn't the only plant that Carver spent time tinkering with in his experiment station; he is also known for his work with sweet potatoes.

During his 1921 presentation on peanuts, Carver told the Ways and Means Committee there were 107 different sweet potato products at that time. Some of the notable uses for sweet potatoes that Carver came up with included vinegar, molasses, postage stamp glue, a synthetic rubber and ink.


Like peanuts, Carver encouraged Southern farmers to produce sweet potatoes because they performed well in the region and provided a cheap source of nutrition.

"Here in the South, there are but few if any farm crops that can be depended upon one year with another for satisfactory yields, as is true of the sweet potato," Carver wrote in his 1936 bulletin "How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing Them for the Table."

"It is also true that most of our southern soils produce potatoes superior in quality," he wrote, "attractive in appearance and satisfactory in yields, as any other section of the country."

Food and Household Products

Carver's 1936 bulletin offers recipes and instructions for creating foods and household products as varied as sweet potato starch, sugar, donuts and croquettes. The George Washington Carver Museum also lists 14 wood fillers, 73 dyes and five library pastes that Carver developed from sweet potatoes.

During the wheat shortage of 1918, Carver experimented with making flour from dried sweet potatoes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture brought him to Washington, D.C., to discuss the feasibility of producing large quantities of sweet potato flour, and plans were put in place to conduct some large-scale experiments.

But when the war ended, so did the wheat shortage, and demand for alternative sources of flour faded.

Clay and Soybeans

He also shared instructions for making paint from local clays in his extension bulletins, hoping that Southern farmers would use them to help beautify their homes. From native clays, Carver also developed ceramics, wood stains and face powder.

Another crop that interested Carver, perhaps from his days studying at the Iowa State Agricultural College, was the soybean. His work with the bean foreshadowed the many ways that soy is used in the marketplace today. Carver reportedly produced nondairy cheeses, several baking flours and a collection of other foods from soy.


Honoring the Renowned Scientist

Carver died on Jan. 5, 1943, his life marked by relentless dedication to agricultural innovation and education. In honor of his immense contributions, the George Washington Carver National Monument was established near Diamond Grove, Missouri.

It stands as the first national monument dedicated to a Black American and non-president, encompassing the farm where he was born, a nature trail and a visitor center highlighting his myriad achievements in science and agriculture.


This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

George Washington Carver FAQ

What is George Washington Carver famous for?
As both an agricultural scientist and an inventor, George Washington Carver is famous for developing hundreds of different products using the materials of sweet potatoes, peanuts and soybeans.
What is George Washington Carver's most famous invention?
Some of George Washington Carver's best-known inventions include crop rotation, or planting different crops to restore soil instead of single-crop farming, and creating 300 different uses for peanuts (which actually weren't classified as a crop until Carver's work).
Who raised George Washington Carver?
George Washington Carver grew up on Moses Carver's farm. Moses Carver was George Washington Carver's mother's former enslaver, but he and his wife raised George as a free child.
What are some things George Washington Carver invented?
George Washington Carver invented more than 300 different uses for peanuts, including salted peanuts, chocolate coated peanuts, peanut cooking oil and peanut-based dyes.
Who is George Washington Carver?
An inventor and a scientist, George Washington Carver is responsible for bringing peanuts and revolutionary agriculture practices into the mainstream.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Abrams, Dennis. "George Washington Carver: Scientist and Educator." Chelsea House Publications. Jan. 31, 2008.
  • African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center. "George Washington Carver: Chemurgy." Nov. 19, 2007. (Jan. 5, 2011)
  • Carver, George Washington. "How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes and Ways of Preparing Them for the Table." Bulletin No. 38. November 1936. (Dec. 31, 2010.)
  • Indiana University. "George Washington Carver (1861 - 1943)." (Dec. 30, 2010)
  • Iowa State University. "Further information on George Washington Carver's Research: The Peanut and the Sweet Potato." 1925. (Dec. 31, 2010)
  • Mackintosh, Barry. "George Washington Carver and the Peanut." American Heritage Magazine. August 1977. (Dec. 30, 2010)
  • McMurry, Linda. "George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol." Oxford University Press. June 16, 1982.
  • National Park Service. "American Visionaries: George Washington Carver." (Dec. 31, 2010)
  • TIME Magazine. "Art: Black Leonardo." Nov. 24, 1941. (Dec. 30, 2010),9171,801330,00.html