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Let me introduce you to George Washington Carver

Posted on July 13, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Brooke Rogers

Can you name a single botanist? You probably know at least one, but if you’re stumped for an answer, I’m pleased to introduce you to George Washington Carver (c. 1861-1943). Born into slavery, Carver was an extraordinary American scientist whose contributions have profoundly impacted the world. He was best-known for his work as an inventor and innovator for agricultural products particularly for peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. The ways in which Carver introduced and implemented these agricultural products contributed to rural economic improvement, particularly for black farmers, and soil health during the nineteenth and twentieth century. I would also like to add genius, artist, and Iowa State’s very first African American student, graduate, and faculty member to this list of descriptions of Carver.

Carver’s interest in nature and plants developed early and by the age of 12 he was known in the local farming community as “the plant doctor”. Once he was old enough, Carver applied to several colleges and was accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived at Highland University, he was refused entry due to his race. After his admittance was denied, Carver made his way to Iowa in 1890 to strengthen his artistic practice by studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola. His art teacher, Etta Budd (also a previous Farm House resident), recognized his talents for painting flowers and plants and suggested that he study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University).

Carver took Etta Budd’s advice to heart and arrived at Iowa State in 1891. While studying at Iowa State, Carver interacted with botanical luminaries like Louis Pammel, who convinced Carver to continue his education at Iowa State. Although Carver’s attention was now focused on the scientific realm, we know that Carver still dabbled in the arts as we have a 1890-1893 green glazed ceramic vase made by Carver in the University Museum’s permanent collection.

Ultimately, Carver took Pammel’s counsel and Carver went on to receive his Masters from Iowa State in 1896. During this period of his life, Carver worked under Pammel at the Iowa Experiment Station studying plant pathology and mycology. With a Master’s degree in-hand and a significant understanding in botany and horticulture, Carver was able to become the first black teaching faculty member at Iowa State. Carver’s scientific talents and successful teaching at Iowa State were quickly noticed by the outside world, particularly Booker T. Washington, first president of the Tuskegee Institute. Washington had been observing Carver’s achievements from afar, and eventually invited Carver to head the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee University.

Carver accepted the offer posed by Washington in 1896 and moved his life and career to Tuskegee, Alabama. He spent the next 47 years developing the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee University into a robust research center. Besides his regular duties as the head of the department, Carver was busy teaching methods of crop rotation, introducing alternative cash crops for farmers whose fields were striped of nutrients after years of planting cotton, and inaugurated crop product research at Tuskegee’s Agricultural Experiment Station.

ABOVE: George Washington Carver, 1999 by Youssef Asar. Funded by the George Washington Carver Artist in Residence Program. Located in the south entry hallway of the Food Sciences Building. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2000.62

IMAGE ABOVE RIGHT: George Washington Carver, 1999 by Christian Petersen. Located in the north courtyard of Carver Hall. The bronze casting was commissioned by the University Museums, and is a gift of John and Linda Dasher. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U99.18

Carver found personal satisfaction in the act of scientific discovery and actively used his talents (and eventually his highly visible public figure platform thanks to admirers like Theodore Roosevelt) to make the world a better place for farmers and black sharecroppers. Iowa State has keenly and lovingly preserved the legacy of George Washington Carver in a multitude of ways: from Parks Library housing a completely digital collection of Carver images and correspondence between Carver and Iowa State colleagues, to the George Washington Carver Summer Research Internship program to numerous artworks and memorial in the University Museums collection honoring Carver’s scientific and artist legacy.

If you look at Iowa State's campus today you can feel and see the impacts Carver made to our community. Witness this for yourself by scrolling through photos of the University Museum’s collection that honor and empower George Washington Carver’s world changing vision and legacy.

LEFT (Painting): Do You Know What's Inside This Flower? George Washington Carver Mentors a Young Henry A. Wallace, 2015 by Rose Frantzen. Located in Curtiss Hall. Commissioned by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and University Museums with funds generously provided by Jim and Marcia Henderson Borel (class of 1978). In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U2015.2

TOP RIGHT (vase): Vase, 1890-1893 by George Washington Carver. Gift of the grandchildren of O.S. and Lurana Jane Carpenter: Martha Lou Malmanger Hutton, Bernice Malmanger, Mary B. Berry Wassom, Lloyd Berry, Ray O. Berry, Marvin W. Carpenter, Marilyn K. Carpenter Lee, and Linda M. Carpenter Peterson. In memory of LaVern B. Carpenter. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2011.181

BOTTOM RIGHT (sketch): George Washington Carver: Preparatory Sketch, c. 1946 by Christian Petersen. Purchased from Mary Petersen by the Christian Petersen Memorial Fund. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM92.112


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