George Washington Carver: Christian inventor.

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George Washington Carver

Inventive son of a slave who showed his genius with peanuts and other crops

George Washington Carver (11K)A crumpled letter arrived in the mail addressed to the well-known professor of agriculture, George Washington Carver. It was a plea for help from the president of a small institute in Alabama. “Our students are poor, often starving,” the president wrote. “They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty. We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops.”

For a moment Professor Carver stopped reading. He knew the effects of poverty on students. Born to black slave parents himself near Diamond Grove, Missouri, around 1860, George Washington Carver had seen starving faces all through his school-days. But his interest in botany had led him to earn two college degrees, and had taken him now, in 1896, to his position of professor at Iowa State College of Agriculture. He had earned a good reputation for his scientific research with plants and plant diseases, and journals and magazines were eager to publish news about his plant discoveries.

Now Dr. Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, wanted Professor Carver to leave Iowa for the South. But Tuskegee offered little. Dr. Washington's letter closed: “I cannot offer you money, position, or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up.” In their place, Dr. Washington offered Professor Carver only hard work — the challenge uplifting people from degradation, poverty and wasted lives.

For hours Carver walked around the beautifully landscaped campus of Iowa State College. He needed to think. He had long ago learned to trust the Lord in difficult decisions. What did God have planned for him now? Finally he knew. He returned to his small room, seated himself at his vintage wooden desk, and reached for a sheet of paper and a pen. “I will come,” he wrote.

Shock at Tuskegee

George Washington Carver with Democratic politician James Farley in 1940

Some dismay greeted him at Tuskegee Institute. He found no laboratory to continue his bacteriological work on plants. He had left healthy black Iowa soil only to find dry multicolored dirt. He saw eroded gullies so large an ox could disappear if it fell into one.

All that was growing here at Tuskegee were weeds. And worst of all, his students didn't seem interested in learning to raise productive crops, even if Professor Carver could work a miracle and grow something on this land.

Carver accepted this challenge. He encouraged his students to help him build a rough laboratory. Then they worked on restoring a 20-acre plot of land until their muscles ached and their backs could bend no more. They plowed it and nurtured it. On to the land they harrowed leaf mold, mud and slime from the local swamps and creeks, and fertilized it with animal dung from local farms. The dirt turned darker and richer. Carver and his students used their homemade lab instruments to test the soil.

Finally the day for planting arrived. By now Professor Carver had implanted new enthusiasm into his students, and they arrived early at the plot. Carver suggested they pray for the Lord's blessing on their first crop. One student stepped forward. “Yes,” the student began, “let's ask the Lord to bring us the best twenty acres of cotton in all the Southland.” Carver smiled gently and shook his head. He admitted the Lord could do anything, but felt it was not a good idea to ask the Lord to grow cotton from the seeds of cowpeas!

Cowpeas?

Stunned silence fell over the group. Cowpeas to these people were worthless crops. They expected to grow cotton. Their disappointment was obvious as Professor Carver reassured them that a good crop of cowpeas would provide much-needed nutrients for the soil. But some thought he was a fool, and a few told him so.

When the time came to harvest the crop, Carver found little joy among his students. Everyone regarded cowpeas as food for livestock. What good were cowpeas to people?

Again Professor Carver accepted their challenge. He invited the students to the campus cafeteria, and told them to bring their appetites. After gulping down helping after helping of food made from cowpeas, the students changed their minds. “Maybe we should plant cowpeas again,” some suggested. Carver disagreed. The cowpeas put fresh nutrients back in the soil, he said, but now he suggested it was time to grow sweet potatoes. They were tasty, and when dried would serve for future lean times.

A few students exchanged surprised looks. But after Carver's cowpeas success they were more trusting of their professor. So together they grew a huge crop of sweet potatoes. Every night George Washington Carver would thank the Lord for His provision. After they harvested a record crop of sweet potatoes, an even bigger challenge awaited. It was time to plant the “king” of crops. Cotton!

Success with cotton

Growing cotton was a happy time under Professor Carver's guidance. Every acre of the revitalized Tuskegee plot produced a 500-pound bale of cotton, compared to only 200 pounds previously.

Successes continued. Early one morning the professor walked through some swampy marsh near the Tuskegee campus when he suddenly stumbled. The sticky swamp mud stuck on his hands, and he wiped it off with his white handkerchief in a nearby puddle of water. Surprisingly, the white handkerchief turned bright blue.

Blue? What was in this mud?

He rushed back to the lab to analyze the mud. He first took a lump of red clay already in the lab, and poured water over it until the sand and grit washed away. A sticky red substance remained. Paint! He could make paint from the clay. Blue and red. People could use this to paint their houses, barns, churches and fences.

President Booker T. Washington shared George Carver's joy. He was proud of the attention people were now paying to the work at Tuskegee. It was bringing respect to black people.

Exciting projects followed. Carver set up a “school on wheels” — a simple wagon containing such objects as a butter churn, a plow, a milk tester, garden tools … — which brought new knowledge to farmers and students around the countryside. He taught the farmers more effective ways to plow. He showed them how to fight insects. How to treat diseases of trees and plants. How to plant productive gardens. He showed the farmers' wives how to make curtains from flour sacks, how to weave rugs from grasses, and how best to prepare their meals. Eventually some of his students took over the wagon, which allowed Professor Carver to return to Tuskegee.

Back at Tuskegee the classes grew larger, and more buildings went up on campus. Cotton was growing thick and rich around the Alabama countryside. The South looked like a white winter wonderland, and farmers boasted about their pure and healthy crops.

But disaster was looming.

Boll weevil strikes

A tiny black beetle was attacking cotton crops over in Texas. The boll weevil was chewing its way through cotton balls across Texas and into Louisiana. In his newspaper articles Professor Carver warned the Alabama farmers they must plant something besides cotton. He urged them to plant peanuts or sweet potatoes. These would help rebuild the soil, and the boll weevils would leave them alone. But the cotton fields were rich and full, and the farmers ignored Carver's warnings. The plot at Tuskegee College was the sole area planted with peanuts.

The boll weevil struck. Billions of the savage little insects swarmed over the Alabama cotton fields in 1914, leaving in their wake a tide of empty shells. Amid this agricultural devestation, the peanut vines at Tuskegee Institute grew firm and fresh. The suffering farmers admitted that all the professor had warned them about had come true. They asked for his help urgently. Carver told the farmers to plow their cotton remains back into the soil, and plant peanuts! They did, and they eagerly read the professor's bulletins on the use and value of peanuts. They learned that like all members of the pod-bearing family, peanuts enrich the soil. They are easy and cheap to grow. They give a wider range of food values than any other legume. Their nutritive value as a stock food compares well with the cowpea. They are easy to harvest … The list went on.

From all over the South, farmers shared their excitement with Professor Carver about their peanut crops. They even mixed peanuts with corn and fed them to pigs — a Carver recipe for better pork. Then something unexpected happened. There was soon such a glut of peanuts that farmers had difficulty selling them. Angry peanut growers accused Carver of leading them toward bankruptcy. Had he been such a fool that he had seen only half the problem?

He retreated to his lab. There he prayed for a way to prevent those who had trusted him from tumbling into financial ruin. Countless experiments followed. Days and nights slipped by as he worked to find uses for the peanuts. Finally his tireless testing began to pay off. He found that peanut oil blended easily with other fluids. With it, he made soap, cooking oil, and margarine. He made exquisite paper from the red skin of the peanut.

Working with the Lord

He staggered from his laboratory — exhausted. He had lost all track of time. “Dr Carver,” shouted one of his students, “you've been working in there for six days and six nights. The good Lord created the whole universe in that time. Why wouldn't you answer the door?” There was much to do, replied the professor wearily. “But now we will be able to use every peanut we have raised. We have found the answer.”

“We?” the student asked. He knew the professor had been alone in his lab. The professor replied, “I was not alone for a moment.”

Six days and nights of creative research had shown no end to the professor's use for peanuts. From the peanut plant he had developed nearly 300 products. Ink, ice-cream, bread, cosmetics, dyes, candy, soap, sausage, oils … He had found substitutes for flour, butter, cheese and coffee. The uses Professor Carver had found in his laboratory for peanuts seemed endless.

In factories and on farms throughout the South, jobs were increasing. The humble peanut had become a lifesaver.

Sweet potatoes

In his classrooms and his laboratory, Carver now turned his attention to sweet potatoes. Before long, he found the sweet potato could help provide vinegar, starch, library paste, shoe black, candy … it had at least 115 valuable uses.

But among all this joy came sorrow. A note arrived from one of the professors students. It said that Dr. Booker T. Washington, the man who had brought George Carver to Tuskegee, was dead. In the days that followed, Carver had doubts about whether he too should leave Tuskegee. Perhaps it was time to move on. He prayed for guidance. At Dr. Washington's funeral, the answer came.

The death had brought a long-time friend of Dr. Washington to the funeral: former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States. President Roosevelt encouraged Carver to stay on at Tuskegee. He told him he must continue with his important work of bettering the world for black people and white people alike. The scientist felt this was the right decision. He would stay.

Carver goes to Congress

Peanuts were still helping to rebuild the South when, in January 1921, Professor Carver received an invitation to Washington, DC. The Senate's Ways and Means Committee was looking at an important tariff bill in Congress. For years, America had imported peanuts from other countries at a tax of only half a cent a pound. It was becoming difficult for local growers to compete with the cheap foreign imports. Peanut growers pleaded with Professor Carver to ask the government at the Senate hearing to raise the tariff of imported peanuts. The professor agreed.

Arriving at the Capitol building, George Carver nervously entered the room in which the senators were discussing the bill. He heard someone say the meeting was about to close. Had he arrived too late? He announced himself to the committee, and they granted him 10 minutes to state his case. Only 10 minutes! He had so much to say and so little time. But he had to make a start. He told those gathered in the great hall about his findings from the peanuts: that the peanut was one of the richest of all the products of the soil, rich in food value, chemical properties, and much more. He produced displays. Breakfast food made from peanuts and sweet potatoes: delicious, wholesome, and easily digested.

He showed them ice-cream powder made from peanuts — just add water. A quinine substitute for fighting malaria. Peanut fodder for livestock. Dyes that wouldn't harm human skin … The committee was so impressed that they agreed to extend the professor's 10 minutes. For the next two hours George Washington Carver shared the secrets of the peanut with a fascinated group of senators. They had never heard anything like this. He told them peanuts could be eaten when meat couldn't. Peanuts were the perfect food.

Lessons from Genesis

“Where did you learn all this?” asked one puzzled senator.

“From a book,” came the reply.

“What book?” the senator asked.

“The Bible,” answered the scientist, with a smile. He told them God has given us everything for our use. “He has revealed to me some of the wonders of the fruit of His earth,” Carver continued. “In the first chapter of Genesis we are told, 'Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.' That's what He means about it — meat. There is everything there to strengthen, nourish and keep the body alive and healthy.”

When George Washington Carver finished, several senators came over and shook his hand. An hour later, the committee announced its decision. Carver had won his case. Peanut growers no longer needed to fear that foreign imports would put them out of business.

Professor Carver was now 57 years old. Despite offers to work for such an eminent scientist as Thomas Edison, he continued at Tuskegee for another 22 years. He developed a new type of cotton known as Carver's Hybrid, and made synthetic marble from wood shavings. He produced dyes from tomato vines, beans, dandelions, onions, trees and clay, and was awarded a medal for advancing the cause of black people.

During his lifetime, George Washington Carver accepted the Book of Genesis as the foundation for his life and his scientific experiments. A few years before his death on Tuesday January 5, 1943, he gave his life's savings to set up a foundation for research in creative chemistry. A humble slave had become one of God's great scientists.

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