George Washington Carver: in profile

George Washington Carver was a celebrated agricultural scientist. Born into slavery in 1860s Missouri, Carver developed a passion for botany which ultimately earned him a post as head of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Here, his pioneering research into soil depletion transformed the lives of many poor black farmers. He died in 1943, aged around 78.

When did you first hear about George Washington Carver?

I’d long known his name. But I only really began to appreciate what an amazing life he’d led a couple of years ago, when I was asked to do a talk at a school during Black History Month. I instantly found the connection he made between soil health and human health astounding. And he reminded me of my grandfather, who, despite being born in Trinidad to a freed slave, went on to become one of the first black barristers in Kenya, having studied in London in the early 1900s. As for Carver, he was born into slavery in rural Missouri but relentlessly pursued an education, and became an accomplished scientist who would transform the lives of some of America’s poorest farmers.

How tough was Carver's early life?

Incredibly so. He never knew his father. Then, when he was very young, his family was kidnapped. His ‘owners’ raised a posse and recovered him, yet he never saw his mother again. The turning point in his life came with the determination to attend the nearest school, which was an eight-mile walk away. At a young age he developed a passion for botany and the natural world, and that passion would eventually take him to Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, as head of its agriculture department.

What made Carver a hero?

His determination to improve other people’s lives. On arriving in the Deep South, Carver was quickly struck by the terrible poverty afflicting local cotton farmers. Many of them were sharecroppers, which was basically one step up from indentured labour. Their land was overworked, the soil terribly depleted – and this meant that their crops were routinely failing.

Carver’s genius was to identify a solution to the problem of soil depletion, and convey that solution brilliantly. He encouraged farmers to move from cotton to other crops – such as peanuts and sweet potato – that would restore the soil’s health. And to communicate the message, he toured local farms in a wagon, distributing ‘how-to’ pamphlets that were accessible to poor black farmers. He even handed out recipes for turning these new crops into dishes. For this, Time magazine dubbed him the ‘Black Leonardo’.

Carver toured the Deep South in a wagon, distributing ‘how-to’ pamphlets that were accessible to poor black farmers

Is there anything you don’t admire about Carver?

His decision to work within the structures of white political rule, rather than fight for racial equality, has drawn criticism. Sometimes our heroes don’t always do what we want them to but it’s hard not to admire his resilience and determination.

Finally, if you could meet Carver, what would you ask him?

Did you find happiness? Given the horrors you experienced, how did you keep on going?

Gillian Burke is a scientist and producer and presenter of natural history programmes. She was was talking to Spencer Mizen

LISTEN: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine