Innovation Profile:
George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver leaves legacy of inspiration and innovation

We’re taking a different approach to this month’s Innovation Profile to focus on one of Iowa’s most famous scientists who left a legacy of innovation and discovery at Iowa State University and around the world through his resilience and love of learning, research and service.

An unwavering focus on education and decades-long commitment to improving opportunities for farmers made George Washington Carver one of the most well-known scientists of his day and built a legacy that inspires many nearly 80 years after his passing.

George Washington Carver was born around 1864 on a farm in Missouri, one year before slavery was outlawed in the United States. Carver and his mother were kidnapped from the farm when he was an infant, and only George was able to be found, recovered, and nursed back to health. After slavery was abolished, Carver remained on the farm until the age of 10 or 12 when he set out to further his education. After supporting himself in a number of jobs, he was able to obtain a high school education in Kansas in his late twenties.

Carver transferred to Iowa State University (then Iowa State Agricultural College) in 1891 to study agricultural sciences after a studying a year at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1894 and was appointed to the Iowa State faculty because of his excellence in botany and horticulture. After earning his master’s degree in 1896, he was invited to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama by famous educator Booker T. Washington.

“Carver was Iowa State University’s first black undergraduate and graduate student, as well as an ISU professor for a short time in 1896 before heading to Tuskegee University,” said Dr. Wendy Wintersteen, President of Iowa State University. “There, Carver used his scientific training to promote crop rotation from cotton to sweet potatoes and peanuts, help farm producers improve their incomes and suggested innumerable uses for the peanut.”

At Tuskegee, he became a well-known inventor and found hundreds of uses for southern crops, including 325 uses for peanuts, 108 uses for sweet potatoes, 75 uses for pecans and more. He tried not to make money from his discoveries, stating that “the Creator did not charge anything to grow the peanut, and I cannot accept money for my work with it.”

Carver’s experience and resilience continues to inspire students and faculty today, said Dr. Wintersteen.

“While he faced hardship, poverty, discrimination and more, he kept his spiritual faith and stated that ‘Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom,’” said Dr. Wintersteen. “Carver leveraged his natural brilliance and scientific training to help farm families escape poverty and make substantial changes in the region’s agricultural systems.”

He was committed to providing practical information to farmers, especially for “the man farthest down,” and shared his research and recommendations through a series of free, simply-written “bulletins” and developed a demonstration laboratory on wheels called the Jesup Wagon to take information directly to farmers.

“George Washington Carver continues to inspire me and countless Iowans. His boundless curiosity and love of nature led to numerous inventions and patents,” said Charles Sukup, Chairman of the Board, Sukup Manufacturing. “He was a pioneer in soil conservation as he advocated for alternating multiple crops to avoid soil depletion.”

Carver was also an accomplished artist, musician and writer. He originally studied art and piano at Simpson College before he chose to follow a path in botany at Iowa State. He was a well-rounded student at Iowa State, publishing his poetry in the school newspaper, having two paintings exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, serving as a leader in the YMCA and debate club, was a trainer for the athletic teams and was a captain in the campus military regiment.

One of Carver’s most engaged students may have also been the youngest. During his time at Iowa State, he was introduced to a 10-year-old son of another faculty member named Henry A. Wallace. Carver spent many hours teaching Wallace about plants and genetics, serving as an inspiration for Wallace’s eventual studying of plant genetics at Iowa State. He became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Vice President of the United States under Franklin D. Roosevelt and was a leader in the commercial development of hybrid seed corn, leading to the creation of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.

“One of the greatest lessons that Carver provides us is to open our hearts, recognize talent and give opportunities to those who are overlooked in our society,” said Sukup. “It was through higher education, provided at Iowa State, that he became the most prominent black scientist in the world. Iowans can be proud of this great heritage which gives us even more inspiration and responsibility for the future.”