George Washington Carver: Pioneer African-American Scientist and Environmentalist

The man who laid the foundation for modern agricultural science

Amanda Yuanyuan Wu
February 8, 2023
A black and white portrait of George Washington Carver

In honor of Black History Month, we are shining the spotlight on some of the most influential African-American environmentalists. Black History Month is celebrated each February and serves as a time to celebrate and pay tribute to the accomplishments and sacrifices of generations of African-Americans. This week we would like to highlight the amazing accomplishments of one of the most influential African-American environmentalists, George Washington Carver.

Early Life

George Washington Carver, whose life spanned from 1864 to 1943, remains a symbol of scientific achievement, botanical expertise, and innovative thinking. Born into slavery in Missouri, Carver overcame numerous obstacles throughout his life. Not only did he become the first African American to receive a Bachelor of Science degree, but he also went on to graduate from Iowa State University with a master’s degree. After completing his degree, Carver received multiple offers but chose to accept a position from Booker T. Washington. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, recognized Carver’s expertise and knowledge of agriculture. In response, he created an agricultural school within Tuskegee and offered Carver the opportunity to run it. Carver would go on to work at the institute for the remainder of his life. During his time there, he made numerous breakthroughs and is now known as one of the most important scientists and environmentalists of his generation.

Crop Rotation

Central to Carver's contributions was his groundbreaking research on alternative crops and sustainable agricultural practices. During this time period, consecutive years of growing cotton had significantly depleted the soil from key nutrients. This led many farmers to struggle in producing high yields of cotton. Carver, however, used his knowledge of soil chemistry to discover that nitrogen-fixing plants could be the solution to the depleted soil. Carver uncovered that growing plants like sweet potatoes, peanuts, and soybeans could actually replace the lost nutrients. Once the soil was restored, farmers could then return to growing cotton and thus produce significantly higher yields. This concept of crop rotation laid the foundation for modern agricultural science and fostered a shift towards methods that prioritize environmental preservation and sustainability. 

A diagram of a peanut plant and it's labled parts
Photo credit: Food Tells a Story

The Peanut Man

Though Carver’s new method of crop rotation produced high yields of cotton for the farmers, it also produced an excess amount of nitrogen-fixing plants. This meant a surplus of sweet potatoes, soybeans, and peanuts with nothing to use them for. In response, Carver embarked on developing new uses for the surplus of products. Through his work, he created numerous products utilizing sweet potatoes. Some of the most notable include flour, paints, synthetic rubber, ink, and vinegar. Despite his numerous sweet potato creations, Carver’s popularity largely stemmed from his use of the peanut. It is estimated that Carver developed over 300 new products from peanuts. These included soaps, stains, milk, cosmetics, oils, cheese, and so much more. He even went as far as using peanuts to develop medicinal products. Though many of these inventions didn’t have widespread commercial use, Carver became famous for these creations and even became known as “the peanut man.”

A black and white photo of a group of men working to grow crops
Photo credit: National Agricultural Library, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Another significant contribution made by Carver is what is known as the Jessup wagon. The contraption was a type of classroom made mobile by a horse-drawn wagon. The Jessup wagon was Carver’s way of bringing his teachings of soil chemistry to others. This made it possible for farmers that were previously enslaved to learn about agriculture in a new way. ‍In addition to his scientific work, Carver was also a passionate advocate for environmental conservation. He believed that nature was a precious resource that needed to be protected for future generations. 

A horse-drawn wagon known as the Jessup Wagon used to be a mobile classroom
The Jessup Wagon

On January 5th, 1943 Carver passed away at 78 years old. He left behind a legacy that will be remembered and respected forever. Shortly after his passing, his legacy was memorialized in a monument near his birthplace. This national monument became the first ever to honor a Black scientist.

stone sculpture of George Washington Carver with a field in the background

As we celebrate George Washington Carver's legacy during Black History Month, we recognize not only his pioneering scientific achievements but also his profound influence in advancing environmental conservation. His remarkable journey, driven by a fervent dedication to science and sustainability, serves as a lasting source of inspiration for individuals across generations and backgrounds. His legacy emphasizes the pivotal role that visionary minds can play in shaping a more sustainable and harmonious world.

As Carver once said, “When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

Learn More

If you want to learn more about inspiring environmentalists or climate education, you can visit our Climate Education blog posts page. Our climate education posts feature stories on many black environmentalists. You can learn about Wangari Maathai and her development of the Green Belt Movement or Hattie Carthan and her contributions to environmentalism and sustainability. Plus we have posts that highlight important information on climate change, offsets, and carbon markets. 

Amanda Yuanyuan Wu
February 8, 2023

Want More?

Click below to discover more Climate Education articles.