George Washington Carver – Hero or Hype?

George Washington Carver by Betsy Graves - Reyneau National Portrait Gallery

The George Washington Carver Party Line

In yesterday’s post, George Washington Carver – Hometown Hero, I introduced that account of Carver’s life and achievements as the “short version of Carver’s life that I long ago learned by heart as a result of multiple visits to the George Washington Carver National Monument” in my home town of Diamond, Missouri.

Today’s post addresses those aspects of the story of George Washington Carver that I did not learn until a few years after I left home.1

The “Miracle Worker” Mythology

Google, the au courant cultural arbitrageur, calculates that the search terms, “George Washington Carver” “Miracle Worker,” generates 1,130 hits. “George Washington Carver” “Wizard of Tuskegee” generates 1,200 hits. 2 Google finds only a few (8) “Savior of Southern Agriculture” titles associated with Carver’s name but its combination of grandiloquent adoration (“Savior”) and specificity (“Southern Agriculture”) compels its inclusion here.

George Washington Carver was – and still is – revered. More accurately, a particular legend, well defined and reliably reiterated, of George Washington Carver is revered.

Consider the easily recognized profile limned in these excerpts from different web sites:

Who would have guessed that a little African-American boy kidnapped from his owner’s plantation and ransomed by his master in exchange for a racehorse would later revolutionize agriculture? But those were the humble beginnings for Dr. George Washington Carver. This famous African-American scientist looked at the damage America’s one-crop system was doing and revolutionized farming. He developed an agriculture made for the problems of the South, which saved the South’s dying farming system by introducing the right crop combinations, and finding and promoting markets for them…. He stayed at Tuskegee, turning down publicity and royalties for his inventions, except when he could talk about Tuskegee, the school he loved. He received several lucrative job offers, including ones from Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, but he preferred to stay at Tuskegee.3
George Washington Carver devoted his life to research projects connected primarily with southern agriculture. The products he derived from the peanut and the soybean revolutionized the economy of the South by liberating it from an excessive dependence on cotton. Carver developed crop-rotation methods for conserving nutrients in soil and discovered hundreds of new uses for crops such as the peanut, which created new markets for farmers.He didn’t just keep the best for himself; he gave it away freely for the benefit of mankind. Not only did he achieve his goal as the world’s greatest agriculturist, but also he achieved the equality and respect of all.4
George Washington Carver was a celebrated botanist and inventor at a time when it was still rare for African-Americans to reach those heights. The son of a Missouri slave, Carver grew up to attend Iowa State University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1894 and a master’s in 1896. He then joined the faculty of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. His attempts to find crop alternatives to cotton led him to the peanut; eventually he created more than 325 products from the humble legume, helping to create demand for the plant and establish it as a major American crop. Carver also worked with sweet potatoes, soybeans and pecans, among other plants, and is often credited with changing the face of agriculture in the American south.5
While at Tuskegee, Carver developed a crop rotation method, which alternated cotton crops with soil enriching crops such as peanuts, sweet potato, and pecans. Carver also developed over 300 uses for peanuts and numerous uses for sweet potatoes and pecans. Despite Carver’s many innovations, he held only three patents for his inventions of soybean based paints and stains. According to Carver, he felt strongly that he should not financially benefit from his inventions. Instead, he believed that his discoveries should be freely shared.6

There are scores of other sites, brochures, and other publications that contain similar descriptions. The #1 and #3 videos listed in a search for George Washington Carver paint a similar picture, albeit accomplishing that through significantly different styles. (The #2 video has the same perspective on Carver, but at 45 minutes long isn’t a pragmatic choice for viewing here.)

Virginia Farm Bureau – ABCs of Agriculture – Peanut man

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History lesson with James Brown and Miss Elaine Thomas

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In fact, finding criticism of Carver is difficult unless one is willing to include a few bizarre sites that accuse him of using peanut allergies to kill children.

… Thanks to George Washington Carver literally tens of people have DIED FROM PEANUT ALLERGIES! It used to be that if you didn’t want to be exposed to anything as lascivious and unsavory as a peanut, you just had to avoid the few hairy-knuckled troglodytes who dealt them at circuses and executions. But thanks to “Mr.” Carver, peanuts are found in virtually every consumer product known to mankind. For example, did you know that peanut butter is not made of butter at all, but is rather produced by distilling pure despair into a resinous goo, and then adding peanuts? … a quick read through the textbooks will show you: Carver sought to destroy the peanut-allergic. In his years at Tuskegee Institute his so-called peanut “research” was really a ruse for a vast eugenics program designed to eliminate “the weak, the undesirable, the sexually compulsive and the slovenly.” Those with peanut allergies were obviously high on his list …7

If these descriptions of Carver (discounting the peanut allergy conspiracy theorists) are universal, why should anyone suspect they vary from reality? That rhetorical question conveniently leads to a comparison of …

The Myth and The Man

The Myth

George Washington Carver created more than 300 (the number varies from publication to publication) new products from peanuts and many others from sweet potatoes, pecans, and other crops. These new markets for legumes and other nitrogen-renewing crops encouraged farmers to plant more and more acres of them, thus saving Southern Agriculture.

The Man

After Carver’s death, lists were created of the plant products Carver compiled or originated. Such lists enumerate about 300 applications for peanuts and 118 for sweet potatoes, although 73 of the 118 were dyes. He made similar investigations into uses for cowpeas, soybeans and pecans. Carver’s list of peanut inventions includes 30 cloth dyes, 19 leather dyes, 18 insulating boards, 17 wood stains, 11 wall boards and 11 peanut flours.8 These six product types account for 106 “uses.” If the multiple listings for the same product, redundant listings and uses unoriginal to Carver are removed, the list of Carver’s peanut inventions is about 100 rather than 300.

The 105 recipes in Carver’s 1916 bulletin9 were common kitchen recipes, including salted peanuts, bar candy, chocolate coated peanuts, peanut chocolate fudge, peanut wafers and peanut brittle, but some appear on lists of his peanut inventions. Even many seemingly innovative uses, such as cocoa, coffee and soap were not new. An 1885 peanut book by B.W. Jones, The Peanut Plant: Its Cultivation and Uses, included recipes for peanut chocolate and peanut coffee and reported that soap had been made from peanuts.

Similar problems arise in the lists of products made from other crops.

More to the point, none of Carver’s peanut products was ever a commercial success, a fact that undercuts the frequently made claims that they did revolutionized Southern agriculture.10

Three patents (one for cosmetics, and two for paints and stains) were issued to George Washington Carver in the years 1925 to 1927; like the other products, these were never, however, commercially successful. Aside from these patents and some recipes for food, he left no formulas or procedures for making his products. He did not keep a laboratory notebook.11

______________

The Myth
George Washington Carver was a quiet, humble man who was dedicated to providing for his fellow man, routinely turning away honors, money, and power to pursue his work at Tuskegee and thus enrich humanity instead of himself.

The Man

Carver started four companies that made and sold a few of his peanut products in hopes of turning a profit. The Carver Penol Company sold a mixture of creosote and peanuts as a patent medicine for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. Other ventures were The Carver Products Company and the Carvoline Company. Carvoline Antiseptic Hair Dressing was a mix of peanut oil and lanolin. Carvoline Rubbing Oil was a peanut oil for massages. All four companies soon failed.

Carver also had numerous problems at Tuskegee.

For example, Carver’s perceived arrogance, his higher than normal salary, and the two rooms he received for his personal use (single faculty members normally bunked two to a room) were resented by other faculty.12

One of Carver’s duties was to administer the Agricultural Experiment Station farms. He was expected to produce and sell farm products to make a profit. He soon proved to be a poor administrator. In 1900, Carver complained that the physical work and the letter-writing his agricultural work required were both too much for him.13

In 1904, a committee reported that Carver’s reports on the poultry yard were exaggerated, and Washington criticized Carver about the exaggerations. Carver replied to Washington “Now to be branded as a liar and party to such hellish deception it is more than I can bear, and if your committee feel that I have willfully lied or been party to such lies as were told my resignation is at your disposal.”14 In 1910, Carver submitted a letter of resignation in response to a reorganization of the agriculture programs.15 Carver again threatened to resign in 1912 over his teaching assignment.16 Carver submitted a letter of resignation in 1913, with the intention of heading up an experiment station elsewhere.17 He also threatened to resign in 1913 and 1914 when he didn’t get a summer teaching assignment18 In each case, Washington smoothed things over. It seemed that Carver’s wounded pride prompted most of the resignation threats, especially the last two because he did not need the money from summer work.

In 1911, Washington wrote a lengthy letter to Carver complaining that Carver did not follow orders to plant certain crops at the experiment station.19 He also refused Carver’s demands for a new laboratory and research supplies for Carver’s exclusive use and for Carver to teach no classes. He complimented Carver’s abilities in teaching and original research but bluntly stated his poor administrative skills, “When it comes to the organization of classes, the ability required to secure a properly organized and large school or section of a school, you are wanting in ability. When it comes to the matter of practical farm managing which will secure definite, practical, financial results, you are wanting again in ability.” Also in 1911, Carver complained that his laboratory was still without the equipment promised 11 months earlier. At the same time, Carver complained of committees criticizing him and that his “nerves will not stand” any more committee meetings.20

The Reassessment

There is more,21 including the contention by many scholars that a number of contemporary workers in his field, some of whom were African American, made more scientifically significant advances, but the issues reviewed in this post, I contend, make the fundamental discrepancy between hero and hype clear.

George Washington Carver was not a saint whose soulful nobility enabled him to overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to fulfill his altruistic mission of saving the agrarian South. Instead, he was a smart, determined man who had no objection to exaggerating and aggrandizing his real successes to enjoy the perks and honors of fame. He could be petty, threaten to quit his job over imagined slights, and complain about teaching, the job for which he was hired. When he did teach, he was not an effective educator. He mismanaged parts of his job that were of lesser interest to him. He was, in fact, a human being with his share of faults as well as undeniable virtues and accomplishments.

The mystery then becomes how and why the apotheosis of Carver from exceptional human being to the personification of humane science took place – and, perhaps more perplexingly, why that immaculate image of George Washington Carver persists to this day despite easily accessed, well documented evidence to the contrary.

And that is the subject of the next George Washington Carver post.

  1. While I originally found this information in my usual haphazard way, drawing from a number of sources, today, I (and readers of this post) benefit from the efforts of the authors of the Wikipedia article on George Washington Carver, who have accumulated and referenced all of the specific historical information about Carver used in this blog entry that is not otherwise specified. The conclusions drawn and the speculations about motivation are, however, my own and responsibility for those elements should not be attributed to anyone else. []
  2. For the record, “George Washington Carver” “Peanut Man” calls up 2,130 pages and “George Washington Carver” “Peanut Scientist” 3,140. There are also a handful of hits for “peanut doctor” and “peanut wizard.” []
  3. The Black Collegian []
  4. The Great Idea Finder []
  5. George Washington Carver: A Who2 Profile []
  6. Profile of George Washington Carver: About.com []
  7. Bringers of Doom Volume 1: George Washington Carver – Spoonbot []
  8. Wikipedia Reference: List of By-Products From Peanuts By George Washington Carver (as compiled by the Carver Museum) []
  9. Wikipedia Reference: Carver, George Washington. 1916. How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption. Tuskegee Institute Experimental Station Bulletin 31 []
  10. Wikipedia references: McMurry, L.O. 1981. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York, Oxford University Press and Smith, Andrew F. 2002. Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea. Chicago: University of Illinois Press []
  11. Wikipedia Reference: Mackintosh, Barry. 1977. George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on a Much-loved Myth. American Heritage 28(5): 66-73 []
  12. Wikipedia Reference: McMurry, L.O. 1981. George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol. New York, Oxford University Press. Pages 45-47 []
  13. Wikipedia Reference: Louis R. Harlan, Ed., The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume 4, pp. 127-128. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1975. Volume 5, page 481 []
  14. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 8, page 95 of Harlan []
  15. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 10, page 480 of Harlan []
  16. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 12, page 95 of Harlan []
  17. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 12, pages 251-252 of Harlan []
  18. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 12 page 201 of Harlan and Volume 13, page 35 of Harlan []
  19. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 10, pages 592-596 of Harlan []
  20. Wikipedia Reference: Volume 4, page 239 of Harlan []
  21. E.g., remember the claim that Edison offered Carver a job at $100,000 per year that Carver rejected to stay at Tuskegee? Well, it turns out that the source of that information was Carver, who, after Thomas Edison’s death in 1931, claimed in speeches that Edison offered him a job at the then huge salary of $100,000 or $200,000 per year depending on the speech. Carver earned about $1,000 per year when he started at Tuskegee. Edison’s associates could never confirm the job offer. []

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