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George Washington Carver: The Amazing Life of the Man Who DIDN’T Invent Peanut Butter

By Marcus A. Hennessy, CEA (ret.)

“It is not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank, that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measures success.”– George Washington Carver

Stamp of George Washington Carver

The great African-American scientist, chemurgist and inventor George Washington Carver spent years developing hundreds of products derived from peanuts. Yet contrary to popular lore, peanut butter was not among them.

The credit for refining one of this country’s signature foods goes to an obscure chemist from Montreal, Marcellus Gilmore Edson, who received U.S. Patent No. 306,727 in 1894 for a process to produce “peanut paste.” This technique was then incorporated into a machine developed by Ambrose Straub, a St. Louis doctor, in 1903 to create edible protein for the elderly, what we now call peanut butter.

Still, Carver’s work with peanuts in the 1890s proved much more valuable to African-American farmers in the Deep South than the invention of the other half of a jelly sandwich.

Already acknowledged as a brilliant scientific investigator at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames, Carver accepted Booker T. Washington’s invitation to assume the position of director of the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee Institute in 1897. There, he immersed himself in the problem of soil degradation and invented the transformative method of crop rotation to replenish nutrients in the cotton fields. By planting nitrate-producing legumes such as peanuts and peas in alternating years, farmers reaped bumper crops of cotton and fed the abundant harvests of peanuts to livestock.

But large peanut surpluses quickly consumed valuable warehouse space, so Carver sought other uses for peanut products and developed cooking oil, inks, dyes, cosmetics, shampoo, soap, a form of gasoline, and even nitroglycerine — all from peanuts!

Among his notable achievements, George Washington Carver:

  • Derived more than 300 viable products from the peanut, about 170 from the sweet potato and 60 from the pecan.
  • Formulated the manufacture of synthetic marble from green wood shavings.
  • Processed veneers from palmetto root.
  • Extracted pigments from clay soil.
  • Developed a process to produce paints and stains from soybeans.
  • Discovered a means to manufacture synthetic rubber from sweet potatoes.
  • Helped to create a thriving peanut industry in the South by arguing before Congress in 1921 to impose tariffs on imported peanuts (the tariffs were legislated in 1922).
  • Accepted the rare honor (for an American, and especially an African-American) of membership in the British Royal Society of Arts in 1916.
  • Served as an agricultural adviser to Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

A gifted artist and painter, Carver also earned recognition as a progressive educator, complementing his rigorous classroom training in modern farming techniques with a remarkable new mobile classroom on wheels that allowed him to take this knowledge directly to African-American farmers in the field. He called it a “Jesup Wagon,” named after one of Tuskegee’s most ardent supporters, New York financier Morris Ketchum Jesup.

Later in his life, Carver spoke frequently on the value of innovation in farming and agriculture and conducted lectures at Southern colleges on behalf of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation to promote racial harmony.

Following Carver’s death in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to procure from Congress the extravagant sum of $30,000—in the midst of a national war effort—to build a monument to Carver just west of Diamond Grove, Missouri, where Carver was born to slave parents around 1864 (the exact year is not known) and where he spent a good part of his youth studying plants in his own small nursery.

Carver was buried next to his friend and associate, Booker T. Washington, on the grounds of Tuskegee Institute, and his epitaph captures the essence of the man who did not invent peanut butter: “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

For more information on the amazing life of George Washington Carver, you can access these websites, which were resourced for this article:

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