Gleaning Wisdom From George Washington Carver

I recently completed George Washington Carver- A Life (1864-1943), by Christina Vella. On the inside cover, her summary states:

Nearly every American can cite at least one of the accomplishments of George Washington Carver. The many tributes honoring his contributions to scientific advancement and black history include a national monument bearing his name, a U.S. minted coin featuring his likeness, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Well, if your grade school history lessons sunk in as well as mine did, you have no idea what he did to warrant such recognition. Albert Einstein, in a lecture at the University of California, named Carver second among the ten greatest living scientists. I decided it was time to know more about the personal and professional life of such a person.

Necessity Is The Mother of Invention

Born into slavery and raised in poverty stricken homes, his role models were both stingy and resourceful. Happily raising almost all his food, nothing was regularly purchased except oil, coffee and sugar.

His childhood farm consisted of numerous sheep, a few milk cows, some hogs and poultry- just enough to provide for the family- and a couple of mules to drag the cart that he took into town periodically to do his trading and shopping. His family also had fifty or sixty bee hives. For the things they needed (boots, knives, tools) he could sell or trade hay, beeswax, honey and molasses. In the deep recesses of the window, flowers could bloom year round.

But Carver never seemed overly anxious about his needs or appearance. He seemed to have a resourceful spirit throughout his life and a good sense of humor.

“For quite one month I lived on prayer, beef suet, and corn meal, quite often doing without the suet and meal.”

-George Washington Carver after leaving the farm to pursue a bachelors degree at Simpson College

Waste Not Want Not

“Nature produces no waste”

-George Washington Carver

Odds and ends had to be saved until a use was found for them. Cornhusks were stacked conveniently in outhouses before catalogs were saved for this purpose. Acorns could be covered for fancy buttons. Around picket fences, he grew pumpkin-sized gourds specifically to use as water and sugar containers. Even ashes from the fireplace were added to rainwater and leaves to create lye for soap.

Value Others Above Yourself

“I never saw anybody do anything with his hands that I couldn’t do with mine.”

– George Washington Carver

Although a very difficult decision for Carver, he did choose agricultural studies over art. What finally seems to have swayed him was the realization that as an agricultural researcher he could be “of much greater service to his race” than as a painter.

As he developed hundreds of new uses for peanuts and sweet potatoes, patents mattered not at all to Carver. He was averse to competition. In fact, he was against the whole idea of selfishly trying to own his discoveries. They were intended for the betterment of his fellow man, not for gaining some capitalistic advantage.

Be Curious

On part of his experiment station plot, he produced thousands of pounds of corn, fodder and hay as well as various food crops. He confirmed that a mere six acres was enough land to provide for a farmer and his family. All his crops were grown without the use of any commercial fertilizer, and every operation was kept within the capability of the one-horse farmer.

He focused the majority of his research on peanuts and sweet potatoes. His scientific breakthrough with these crops- both of which would replenish the cotton-leached soil of the single-crop economy of the South- helped spare multitudes of sharecroppers from poverty.

Be Prepared For Adversity

Carver was not immune to the racism of the Jim Crow era or the privations and hardships of the Great Depression and two world wars. Yet throughout this tumultuous period, his scientific achievements aligned him with equally extraordinary friends, including Teddy Roosevelt, Mohandas Gandhi, Henry A. Wallace and Henry Ford.

He took a position at Tuskegee under University President Booker T. Washington. In addition to his obligations to teach his classes and carry out research, Carver was dismayed to receive a two-page list of duties. He was responsible in every detail for supervising 1600 acres of farmland, 191 dairy cows, the barns, the orchard, the beehives and pastures. He also served as the school veterinarian for livestock and poultry numbering about 1500 animals. He was also to organize the campus trash and start a compost pile inside a pen.

Wanting to share discoveries in all areas of farm life, he was eager to share with anyone who would listen. But the explorations Carver make in the countryside both appalled and inspired him.

“The most ignorant farmers were also the most hardheaded and superstitious. The idea that one could rejuvenate a field with little more than leaves and swamp muck was tantamount to telling farmers they could make the soil fertile by singing to it”.

– George Washington Carver

Christianity’s Consistent with Science

“Without God to draw aside the curtain, I would be helpless”.

-George Washington Carver

Carver was an unassuming intellectual with a quirky sense of humor, striking eccentricities, and an unwavering religious faith. A prodigious and generous scholar whose life was shaped by struggle and heartbreak as well as success and fame, he remains a key figure in the history of southern agriculture, botanical advancement and the struggle for civil rights- always acknowledging God as the author of this discoveries.

“Science is simply the truth about anything”

-George Washington Carver

Asked to write a few words of general advice to young people, Carver in those days could work himself into a rapture of several pages. “I want them to find Jesus and make Him a daily, hourly and monthly part of themselves. O how I want them to see the Great Creator in the smallest and apparently the most insignificant things about them. How I long for each one to walk and talk with the Grat Creator through the things he has created.”

“Inspiration is never at variance with information; in fact, the more information one has, the greater will be the inspiration”.

– George Washington Carver

Share Life’s Wisdom, Experience and Knowledge Freely

Carver was a man who worked extensively on finding uses for the peanut, sweet potato, soy beans, cow peas, and pecans. He discovered myriad industrial applications for these crops, from plastics to nitroglycerin, as a means of offering economic alternatives to cotton for poor farmers in the South. Carver never kept a lab book and left no formulas or procedures for his products; he seems to have been more concerned with proving sustainable agriculture as a viable means of existence.

Carver published 44 Bulletins with titles and content any blogger would be proud to publish. Titles include: Nature Study and Gardening for Rural Schools, How to Build Up Worn-Out Soils, How to Make and Save Money on the Farm and his most widely publicized Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace. Circulars between 1912 and 1938 included titles such as: How to Live Comfortably this Winter, Canning and Preserving of Fruits and Vegetables at Home and Some Choice Wild Vegetables that Make Fine Foods.

For the cost of a postage stamp, Carver would share his products developed from peanuts and sweet potatoes, never pursuing a patent or requesting royalties for their production.

Surprisingly, Carver was quick to share all this knowledge in the early 1900’s but finding copies of this research 100 years later has proven difficult. The majority of Carver’s manuscripts are stored in The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Currently, due to National Black History Month, Carver’s original manuscripts are on display and not available to digitally copy until March. I should have several relevant copies within a few weeks and plan to publish relevant submissions here!

Most would consider his poverty and dark skin during The Reformation a disadvantage. But Carver used such stressors to be self-sustaining and to teach others to do the same. Nature produced no waste and therefore Carver believed nothing should be discarded but rather repurposed. He was naturally curious, generous and long-suffering- likely an expression of genuine faith in God. Carver is a new hero of mine and I’m eager to solidify my knowledge of him in 2020!


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