My second Extraordinary Life this month is of one of
’s best known black scientists – George Washington Carver. He had much in common with Sir Francis Bacon, my first Extraordinary Life a few weeks ago. Both men used experimentation and observation as the basis of their work, and they promoted education. They both also had a strong belief in their work being for the benefit of mankind and in the name of God. America
George Washington Carver was born into slavery, one of the last generation to do so. He was only a week old when he was kidnapped with his mother and sister by night raiders from the neighbouring state. It was as if they were cattle or sheep being rustled. Carver’s original owner, however, tracked them down and persuaded the bandits to let him take George back in exchange for a horse.
It was George’s owner who “adopted” him the following year when slavery was abolished. He encouraged George to read and write and helped to improve his general education. He encouraged George’s inquisitive mind which he showed from an early age – “I wanted to know the names of every stone and flower and insect and bird and beast,” George would later admit.
In 1890 he was in
studying botany at the state’s Iowa . He was the first black student there, and his talents were recognised by 2 professors who persuaded him to study for a Master’s degree in agriculture. Agricultural College
In 1896 George was invited to be head of the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute in
, where he would teach, study and innovate for the rest of his life. On the Institute’s experimental farm station George developed effective new methods of crop rotation to improve soil fertility and productivity. He also created a wagon as a mobile classroom which acted as an outreach programme. Alabama
Today George Washington Carver is regarded by many as the Father of Chemurgy – the science of using agricultural products in industry. In the early 20th century he developed new uses for many food plants, including sweet potatoes, pecan nuts and soybeans. But it was his development of many uses for the peanut that turned him into one of the best-known African-Americans of the period.
Using great imagination and inventiveness George came up with several hundred uses for various parts of the peanut plant. He actively developed and produced peanut products such as massage oil, cheese, soap, TB medication, face powder, wood stain, and printing ink. But the most famous product he developed (but did not invent) was peanut butter (you either love it or, like me, hate it, yeuch!).
But what about George’s sexuality? George never married, but he did have a relationship with a female school teacher for 3 years. There’s no evidence that he had any sexual contact with anyone at all, but that doesn’t prove anything. What was noticed during his lifetime was that he had many young male students to whom he wrote affectionate letters. If he did that today he would be charged with misconduct. What would the authorities today think about him giving any young male students who agreed a massage, sometimes with his special peanut oil? If his students were not young adults that would certainly have been grounds for inappropriate sexual misconduct (in the
at least). Perhaps this contact George had with other males was no more than paternalistic or “bromantic”. And it was a much more innocent age back then. George left no writings on his feelings, so we’ll never know for sure. UK
He developed a close friendship/relationship with Austin W. Curtis, a
graduate and colleague at Cornell University with whom he spent most of his final years. After George’s death Curtis was dismissed from Tuskegee . There is still speculation about George’s sexuality. I find it difficult to come to any definite opinion. Tuskegee
George died at the age of 78 from injuries sustained in a fall. He was a national hero. A national monument to him, including a museum, a statue and a nature trail, was being planned even before his death. World War II and budget cuts meant it wasn’t opened until 1953. It was the first US national monument to an African-American.