George Washington Carver was an American scientist, botanist, educator and inventor. He was born around 1864 (no one knows the exact date or year) near Diamond Grove, Missouri, on the farm of Moses Carver.
Born into difficult times near the end of the Civil War, Carver grew up on the farm and fell in love with nature. He grew his own garden and soon earned the nickname “The Plant Doctor.”
After the Civil War, Southern farmers dedicated most of their acreage to growing cotton, which depleted the soil over time. In the early 1900s, the boll weevil destroyed most of the cotton crops, leaving farmers searching for better alternatives.
Carver dedicated his research to helping farmers develop new crops as alternatives to cotton. He suggested that farmers should rotate the crops they plant in order to make better use of the soil and natural resources.
He taught farmers to alternate soil-depleting cotton crops with soil-enriching crops, such as peanuts, soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes.
Carver believed alternative crops could be both a source of food and a source of other products, the sale of which could greatly improve farmers’ quality of life. Carver’s crop rotation idea revolutionized Southern agriculture by making it more sustainable.
To urge farmers to consider alternative crops, Carver suggested more than 300 uses for peanuts and hundreds more uses for soybeans, pecans and sweet potatoes. In addition to basic food recipes, Carver’s suggestions for new uses for these crops included: adhesives, wood stain, shoe polish, bleach, axle grease, fuel, ink, linoleum, metal polish, paper, plastic, pavement, shaving cream, talcum powder and synthetic rubber.
Despite generating many ideas for alternative uses for various crops, Carver applied for only three patents during his lifetime: one for cosmetics and two for paints/stains. He didn’t profit from most of his ideas.
Instead, he freely shared his discoveries. He was quoted as saying about his ideas, “God gave them to me. How can I sell them to someone else?”
Carver was also known for improving racial relations, mentoring children, poetry and painting. He served as an example of humanitarianism and rejection of materialism.
He once rejected a job offer from Thomas Edison that would have paid him an annual salary of $100,000 (more than $1 million in today’s dollars), choosing instead to continue his work as a university researcher. In 1940, he donated his life savings to establish a foundation for continued agricultural research.
Based on popular legend and his work in developing peanuts as an alternative crop, Carver is often given credit for inventing peanut butter. Even though he probably did make peanut butter while studying the peanut, he didn’t invent it.
Peanut butter had already been around for hundreds of years. The Aztecs, for example, were known to have made an edible paste from ground peanuts.