Dr. Washington Carver, From Slave to Scientist

Washington Carver’s crop rotation technique made growing cotton more lucrative for poor farmers.

Dr. George Washington Carver was a prominent African American agricultural scientist in the early 20th century, when most people made a living from farming. He went from being a slave to becoming a well-known scientist who invented a way to prevent soil depletion and later became a role model in science. His life was a rare one, to be valued and respected.

Washington Carver was born around 1860, but his exact birthdate is unknown. Nine years before he was born, his mother was purchased as a slave by Moses Carver, at age 13. While she was pregnant, Washington Carver’s father, who was a slave at a nearby farm, was murdered by raiders. Washington Carver was born into slavery in the Civil War era in Missouri at a time when there was a lot of guerilla warfare and raiders. When he was still an infant, he, his mother, and his sister were kidnapped by slave raiders. Moses Carver was able to locate Washington Carver, but he couldn’t retrieve his mother or his sister. Thus, he grew up without knowing his parents.

After slavery was abolished, Washington Carver was raised by the Carver family as one of their own, and at age 11, he left the farm to pursue further education. He was taken in by a childless African American couple who gave him a home in exchange for helping with household chores. After graduating high school, his new foster parents encouraged him to pursue a higher education. Washington Carver did just that and applied to Highland College in Kansas, an all-white school. However, once the school learned he was Black, he was rejected. He was forced to enroll at a college that wasn’t racially biased, so he decided to apply — and was subsequently accepted — to Simpson College.

Washington Carver was the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree in science and went on to earn his master’s degree in agriculture. He later received a job offer from Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. Washington Carver taught poor farmers cheaper ways to fertilize their soil, such as using muck instead of buying expensive fertilizers. He also shared the affordable tactic of feeding hogs acorns instead of expensive feed. Washington Carver then became known as the Plant Doctor to local farmers because of his ability to improve the quality and health of gardens, fields, and orchards.

In 1916, as Washington Carver was researching soil chemistry, he noticed that growing cotton deprived the soil of nutrients, making it so there was less yield in the next harvest. The air we breathe in contains 79 percent nitrogen, and plants need nitrogen to grow, but growing cotton robs the soil of this important element. Nitrogen fertilizers pollute water, which accelerates algae growth, kills fish, and makes it harder to breathe with the excess nitrogen that leaves the land. Fertilizers are also expensive.

To combat this, Washington Carver implemented crop rotation when harvesting cotton, and utilized nitrogen-fixed plants on the same plot of land to restore the soil and result in a larger harvest. Nitrogen-fixed plants contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots which extract nitrogen from the air, convert it to a natural fertilizer, and act as a factory that produces nitrogen. When the plant dies, it leaves a lot of nitrogen in its place, so the next plant that grows there will inherit the nutrients it had made with no need of using fertilizers where the nitrogen could escape easily and pollute the area.

This technique quickly became popular, since cotton harvests were not lucrative and fertilizers were expensive and polluting. After farmers implemented crop rotation using nitrogen-fixing plants like peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, farmers were astounded with the results. But there was still one problem: the surplus of potatoes and other non-cotton products, so Washington Carver invented numerous uses for the excess plants, especially peanuts, and became known as the Peanut Man. Nevertheless, when presenting his ideas, many people criticized him and made racist remarks. It wasn’t until after his death that people realized his relevance to the scientific community.

Washington Carver died January 5, 1943, and was buried next to his friend Booker T. Washington. He even received a monument a decade after his death, something that was previously only assigned to presidents. He also has had many schools named after him, including the George Washington Carver Elementary School in San Francisco. Washington Carver indeed left his mark on history and the Black community.

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