Born into slavery in Missouri, near the end of the American Civil War, this distinguished scientist was raised in poverty after the war by adoptive parents, the German-American immigrants who had purchased his mother. They taught him to read and write, but, spending hours alone on the farm, George reportedly discovered his love for nature and science on his own.
How Carver achieved an education, as a poor black boy when schools were still segregated and opportunities hard to come by, is a phenomenal story in itself, and required enough perseverance and determination to make repeated moves to foreign states and towns, boarding with strangers and taking odd jobs, starting at a very young age. Eventually, he obtained a graduate degree in botany and became the Agriculture Department Head at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Carver’s primary interest was in helping former slaves, now impoverished Southern farmers, become self-sufficient and build thriving farms. Despite offers to relocate over the years, for substantial amounts of money, Carver remained dedicated to this goal, and stayed at Tuskegee. He taught sustainable farming and focused his research on discovering ways to make useful products out of crops and farm wastes, early innovations comparable to today's use of enzymes in everyday life. He was described by his superiors as a brilliant scientist and developed over 300 industrial uses for various crops, such as soybeans, pecans, sweet potatoes and, predominantly peanuts, including dyes, cosmetics, plastics, glue, soaps, lubricants and medicines. Each of these crops was selected because of their ability to replenish the soil that had been stripped of nutrients by decades of cotton and tobacco farming. Thus, Carver also introduced the concept of crop rotation to America.
A Pioneer of Industrial and Agricultural Biotech
As a pioneer of industrial biotechnology, Carver discovered a way to purify biochemicals from plants and make dyes, paints and stains from peanuts and soybeans, replacing European imports during the First World War, and essentially being the first advocate of green biotech products. Peanuts were used to make personal care products including massage oil, which, from 1933 to 1935, became the rage as a theurapeutic treatment for infant paralysis due to polio (it was later determined that the oil had no medicinal properties). In his travels he met and became friends with Henry Ford, and the two agreed on the concept of using soy as an alternative fuel. The focus of many biotech companies today, for example, Iogen and Genencor, is to find a way to efficiently manufacture biofuels from various plants. Carver was awarded many honors over the years for his achievements, but his presentation to Congress, about the benefits and potential of peanut products, during committee meetings leading to the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922, made him most famous.
Although he did sell some of his peanut-based products, Carver only ever filed three patent applications, one for a cosmetic product, and two for paints and stains. He was a humble man with no interest in acquiring financial gains for his work. He left no formal recipes and did not intend to make his products a commercial success, which they weren’t. What he did accomplish was to provide poor farmers with a means of sustaining their operations without having the purchase the commercial equivalents. Thus, George Washington Carver was a father of agricultural biotechnology in his approach to using natural plant-derived biochemicals to make useful products for farm and home operations, and in his strong drive to promote sustainable agriculture.
There are many more details on the life of George Washington Carver than what is presented here, but when the full story is known, it is appropriate that the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has an award in the name of this fascinating man, presented each year at the BIO World Congress, to innovators and leaders in industrial biotechnology.