Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver

“If you love it enough, anything will talk to you”
-George Washington Carver-

Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver

“When you can do the common things of life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

-George Washington Carver-

“Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books, for they speak with the voice of God.”

-George Washington Carver-

Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver

This virtual tour is based on a temporary George Washington Carver exhibit at the African American Museum and Culture Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This virtual exhbit was created in order to turn the temporary exhibit designed by the curator Susan Kuecker into something more permanent. The exhibit ran until August 4, 2008



“As nearly as I can trace my history…
…I was about two weeks old when the war closed…”
-George Washington Carver

Foundation marking original site of Mary Carver's cabin...

The image shows the foundation of the slave cabin George’s family lived in until they were accepted into the main house. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Even with Carver’s own words; no one knows exactly what year Carver was born. The quote suggests he was born in 1865, though according to census information from 1870 he was born in 1860. Even other stories Carver told placed his birthdate in a different year. Unfortunetly with the choas typical to post war Missouri there are no records to confirm one date as accurate.

What is known about Carver, is that he was born to a slave girl named Mary. Her owners were farmers in southwest Missouri; Moses and Susan Carver. This is where the story of George Washington Carver begins. His early years brought him from slavery, to be raised as a son by his former owners and pursue his education through numerous travels.


Moses Carver, circa 1895

Moses Carver 1895 Owner of Mary. Photo Courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver’s mother was named Mary; a slave girl bought by the Carvers at age 13 in 1855. Though Moses Carver was said to be against slavery, he bought Mary in order to help his wife Susan with the housework. A copy of her official bill of sale can be found here. This type of arrangement was typical of the time period in Missouri. Farmers would generally own one or two slaves and their children. There is a dispute over who Carver’s father actually was. The two most common theories are that his father was an African American man who was killed shortly after his birth. Another common theory is that his father was actually his mother’s owner, Moses Carver.

Mary had two sons; Jim and George. She may have also had two or three daughters but they died young. The story that Carver was told, and he repeated throughout his life, was when he was six weeks old, his mother Mary and young George were kidnapped by a guerilla group and brought to Arkansas. Moses Carver sent a Union soldier after them, but he was only able to return George. No one knows for sure what happened to Mary. Kidnappings of enslaved individuals were common during the civil war and the years that followed.

For more information about Post War Missouri Click Here

Fact: George Washington Carver was not freed by the emancipation proclamation, but by the Missouri state constitution.

George Carver, on left, with his brother, Jim, circa 1870's

George and Older Brother Jun 1870s. Photo courtesy of George Washington National Monument.

However, it was also common practice for slaves to run away. Late and post-war Missouri was chaotic. Many slaves decided to use this chaos as a distraction to run. It is possible that this is what happened to Mary. There is no way to know which story, if either, are correct.

After Mary was gone, Jim and George moved into the main house. Slavery was outlawed in 1865 by the Missouri constitution, but they continued to live with their former masters anyway. They were raised as Moses’ and Susan’s sons which was not an uncommon practice in Southwest Missouri. As a freed man his name changed from “Carver’s George” to “George Carver.” Jim was older and healthy whereas George was a sickly child. He was expected to help, but was kept from heavier work. Therefore he had more free time in his youth than others of his age and time, which allowed him more time for education.


Carver, circa 1870's

Carver, circa 1870’s. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver’s interest and love of plants started young. As he was a sickly child he was not able to help farm as much as other children were expected to and was therefore allowed more free time. He used this time to explore and draw the plants around him. He became known as the “plant doctor” among his neighbors. He would often be asked for help in nursing a plant back to health because of his skill.

Fact: As an adult Carver’s always wore a flower in his lapel because of his love of plants.

Mariah Watkins, circa 1870's

Most of Carver’s early education started within the Carver’s household. Since he could not help on the farm he helped Susan. Here he learned to sew, cook and knit. He was unable to attend the local school because of his race, but the Carver’s hired a private tutor to teach him at home.

However, it soon became apparent that he had surpased the tutor in knowledge. With no school for him to attend nearby he left the Carver’s home in 1877 for the nearest black school in Neosho. He was taken in by Andrew and Mariah Watkins, and lived with them while attending the school. He stayed at the grade school for only one year before continuing his travels.


Fort Scott, Kansas, 1886

Picture of Fort Scott Kansas 1886. Photo courtesy of Fort Scott National Historic Site.

Reconstruction in Missouri ended in 1877. At this time it was common for African Americans to move to Kansas due to increased conflict in Missouri.

He left for Fort Scot Kansas in 1878. While there he attended the local school and worked for a blacksmith to supprt himself. He left a year later after witnessing a lynching. No one knows exactly what happened to him during the lynching, but he spent the next decade wandering through Kansas and Missouri. It wasn’t until 1888 that he stayed in one place for a prolonged period of time.

Minneapolis, Kansas, circa 1900

Minneapolis, Kansas 1900. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver arrived in Minneapolis, Kansas in 1880 where he attended a mostly white high school. He later told people that it was here that he completed his schooling, though there is no proof that he actually graduated. He returned to Missouri in 1885, but shortly left again for Beelerville, Kansas.

Beelerville, Kansas, circa 1885

Beelerville, Kansas, circa 1885. Photo courtesy of Ness County Historical Society.

Carver arrived in Beelerville in 1886. He set up his first homestead in this town. It was from here that he applied to his first college, but was declined based on his race.

Arcade Hotel in Winterset, Iowa, circa 1900

Arcade Hotel in Winterset, Iowa, circa 1900. Photo Courtesy of Madison County Historical Society.

Carver arrived in Winterset, Iowa in 1888/89. Winterset was the first place he spent a great deal of time since he had seen the lynch mob. He opened a laundry business to support himself. It worked well since the materials to start a business like that could be obtained cheaply and quickly earned their worth. It was here that he met Helen Millholland who convinced him to again apply to college in Indianola. He was accepted and so started his college career.


College Years

Carver as a faculty member of Iowa State College, circa 1895

Carver as a faculty member of Iowa State College, circa 1895. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Parks Libray, Iowa State University

In 1885, young George Washington Carver applied and was accepted to Highland University in Kansas. Later on, Carver was denied access to this University when the college found out Carver was an African American. The reason they would not admit George Washington Carver into Highland University was because they did not know if they would still be able to raise funds if an African American student was enrolled.

B.2.9 Highland University, 1885

Highland University (now Highland Community College). Photo courtesy of Highland Community College.

After his denial to Highland University, Carver found a home at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. This was the beginning of a road of great achievement for George Washington Carver.

“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.”
– George Washington Carver –

For more information on Highland University today Click Here

Simpson College

Simpson College, circa 1890

Simpson College in the late 1800s. Courtesy of Simpson College.

During 1890 to 1891, Simpson College, located in Indianola, Iowa was endowed by Matt Simpson, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and an advocate of equal rights for all men. Carver, therefore, was accepted and allowed to attend Simpson College where he completed one year. Carver was one of the first African American students to attend Simpson College.

FACT: While attending Simpson College Carver created a laundry business to make money while taking classes.

Carver with painting, 1893

Carver painting at Simpson College. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

Carver attended Simpson College as a talented artist. There, he met one of his professors named Etta Budd. Professor Budd believed Carver was a talented painter, but she did not think there was much of a future for an African American painter. Because of Carver’s love of nature, Etta Budd talked to her father, an Iowa State agricultural professor. She encouraged Carver to transfer to Iowa State because she thought an African American man could have a better career with a science background rather than an art background. Carver took Budd’s advice and transferred to Iowa State because he wanted to help African Americans in the south by teaching them the new scientific techniques of the time.

Budd family with Etta in the center, circa 1890

Family portrait of the Budd family. Miss Etta Budd (bottom center) was Carver’s professor at Simpson College, while her father (middle left) was Carver’s professor at Iowa State. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Parks Library, Iowa State University.

“During my six years in college, her interest in me never waned”
– George Washington Carver about Miss Budd –

“(She) helped me whatever way she could”
– George Washington Carver about Miss Budd –

Iowa State

Old Main

Iowa State in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Park Library, Iowa State University.

Carver decided to leave Simpson College and move to what was then Iowa State Agricultural and Mechanical College in Ames, Iowa. He was accepted and allowed to attend classes at Iowa State, but the discrimination was much larger while attending classes there. George Washington Carver was the first black student to attend Iowa State. Because Carver was an African American student, he was not allowed to sleep in the residental dormitories or eat in the dining hall. Carver was forced to sleep in an old office and when it was time to eat, Carver had to eat meals in the basement of the kitchen with the employees.

Carver in National Guard Student Battalion uniform

Carver in his National Guard uniform. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

George Washington Carver, even with taking classes and working to earn money to get him through school, was still able to participate in extracurricular activities. The most notable one for Carver was the National Guard, where he became a Captain of the student battalion. Others included…

  • Debating Club
  • German Club
  • Art Club
  • Young Men’s Christan Association
  • Athletic Trainer for the Iowa State football team
Microscope given to Carver by faculty members of Iowa State College

Carver received this microscope a gift when he left Iowa State. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Park Library, Iowa State University.

After George Washington Carver graduated with his Bachelor’s degree, he was encouraged, by his professors, to continue taking classes at Iowa State and obtaining his Master’s degree. Along with taking classes, Carver also taught some courses as a teacher’s assistant. After two years in the Iowa State Master of Agriculture program, Carver graduated with his Master’s degree. At this point in Carver’s life, he had to make a choice between staying at Iowa State as a faculty member, or he was also offered a job at Tuskegee Institute. Carver wanted to help African American farmers, and he believed that the Tuskegee Institute was the place he could do the most for them, so Carver accepted the job.

” There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation — veneer isn’t worth anything”
– George Washington Carver


Throughout Carver’s college career, he made many life long friends. Many of these people were accomplished scientists in their field and inspired or were inspired by Carver is some way.oil

Louis Pammel, circa 1900

Lois Pammel working in the field. Photo courtesy of special collections, Parks Library, Iowa State University.

Louis Pammel was a professor at Iowa State, where he met George Washington Carver. Pammel was a botany professor, but was an expert on fungi and plant diseases. Carver worked under Pammel while working towards his Master’s degree. During this work, Carver learned skills on plant pathology, which he used to publish articles and gain national respect. When Carver left for Tuskegee Institute, Pammel kept in close contact with his old friend, and eventually Pammel wrote a paper about George Washington Carver’s life.

“(He was) the best collector I ever had in the department or have ever known”
– Louis Pammel about George Washington Carver –

For more information on Louis Pammel Cick Here

Henry C. Wallace, circa 1910

Henry C. Wallace, circa 1910. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Parks Library, Iowa State University.

“I never can repay you for being so kind, and indulgent to a poor little wayward black boy when in school.”
– George Washington Carver in a letter to Henry C. Wallace –

Henry C. Wallace was another one of Carver’s professors are Iowa State. Henry C. Wallace was an Iowa State agricultural college graduate, where he stayed to teach. In 1921, Warren G. Harding appointed Henry C. Wallace as the Secretary of Agriculture. Henry C. Wallace’s classes and the man himself inspired George Washington Carver and helped him in succeeding his achievements.

“No one missed his class if they could help it. A born teacher. (He’ll) never know how much he enthused and inspired me.”
– George Washington Carver about Henry C. Wallace –

Henry A. Wallace

Henry A. Wallace talking with Carver. Photo courtesy of Special Collections, Park Library, Iowa State University.

Henry A. Wallace was a boy at the time George Washington Carver attended classes at Iowa State. When Carver would go on his nature walks, young Wallace would tag along. By Carver allowing Henry A. Wallace to accompany him on his walks, Wallace’s interest in nature rose, and he credits Carver for getting him interested in nature and agriculture. Henry A. Wallace grew up and became the Secretary of Agriculture, and later became the vice president of the United States. After his political days, he developed Hybrid seed corn, which became the world’s largest seed corn company.

“Kindliest, most patient teacher I ever knew.”
– Henry A. Wallace about George Washington Carver –

For more information on Henry A. Wallace Click Here


Life’s Work

Carver in lab

Carver in his lab apron with a smile. Photo courtesy of the George Washington Carver National Historic Site.

Carver was a generalist and did not deal to work specifically in one area. For this reason, his work was not revered as much as it is today. Carver saw the interconnectedness of all sciences to one another.

Carver in lab circa, 1935

Carver working in his lab. Photo courtesy of the George Washington Carver National Historic Site.

“He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

– Epitaph on the grave of George Washington Carver


Carver in greenhouse at Tuskegee Institute, circa 1935

Carver working in a greenhouse at Tuskegee. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

In 1886, Carver took a position teaching at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama as the head of the agricultural department as well as a director of a state agricultural station. He was invited to become part of the staff by Booker T. Washington. Here he began working to improve crop production through improved methods of soil conservation.

  • 1903 – Carver begins researching the usefelness of soybeans.
  • 1910 – Carver becomes head of the Tuskegee Institute Department of Research, a newly created department.
  • 1914 – Carver begins researching the usefulness of peanuts.
  • 1940 – Carver gives the Tuskegee Institute his life savings of $33,000. This money was used in the creation of the George Washington Carver Research Foundation for agricultural research.

“Take care of the waste on the farm and turn it into useful channels’ should be the slogan of every farmer.”
– George Washington Carver

“There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation — veneer isn’t worth anything.”
-George Washington Carver

Jesup Wagon

Carvers drawing of Jesup wagon he designed circa 1905

Carver’s drawing of “Jesup” wagon he designed, circa 1905. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

While at Tuskegee Carver pioneered the use of agricultural demonstration wagons commonly known as Jesup wagons named in honor of Morris Jesup, a New York banker and philanthropist who financed the production for the fitting and equipment to instruct farmers and sharecroppers in rural regions of the state about efficient farming methods. Carver not only drafted the plans for the wagons but also selected the equipment, drew instructional charts and suggested lecture topics to be delivered at each visit.

Jesup wagon in front of the US Department of Agriculture

Jesup wagon in front of the US Department of Agriculture. Photo courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture.

Carver’s Jesup Wagon was so successful and inventive, that it was eventually adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s outreach program.


Carver with some of the products that he developed from peanuts, circa 1920

Carver with various products made from his work with peanuts. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Monument.

It is a misconception that George Washington Carver created peanut butter. However, he did advocate for farmers to plant crops such as peanuts and soybeans when rotating crops as these put nutrients back into the soil when growing that other crops deplete from the soil. Later Carver experimented with peanut oil in women’s cosmetics as well as a possible treatment for polio. The oil was utilized by massaging it into a patient’s atrophied muscles. This proved to be somewhat helpful; however, this could be attributed to Carver’s advanced message techniques he acquired at Iowa State while serving as an athletic trainer.

Carver with young patient

Carver working on a patient with assistant. Photo courtesy of George Washington Carver National Historic Site.

One of his most surprising peanut-related contributions to mankind was his extraction of a peanut oil which aided in restoring wasted tissues. To prove the value of the oil, he took photographs of the deformed limbs of children before treating them and then after a year of treatment. The remarkable improvement evidenced by the pictures started a stream of ailing children to his laboratory, and, with the help of his students, all were treated.


Carver looking through a microscope in his lab

Carver looking through a microscope in his lab.

Carver had impact on many different types of science. His research and teaching covered an amazing array of scientific fields of study. He saw the interconnectedness of all sciences to one another and sought to make an impact in all for the betterment of humankind.

Field of Study Description Carver’s Contribution
Chemurgy Chemistry of natural and farm products Developed hundreds of products from peanuts, sweet potatoes, clay, ect.
Plant Breeding/Genetics Developing new varieties and hybrids of plants New varieties of cotton; Amaryllis
Food Science/Nutrition Use, storage and nutrients in humans Introduced new foods; promoted home canning; promoted healthier, more diverse diet
Plant Pathology Study of the diseases of plants Studied insect and fungal diseases of cotton as well as other crops and treatment of these diseases
Soil Science Study of soil Promoted the addition of natural fertilizer and growing legumes to improve soil fertility
Bacteriology Study of bacteria and related organisms Sampled drinking water, milk, and food products for disease causing bacteria
Botany and Mycology Basic study of the biology of plants and fungi (See below)
Ecology Study of relationship of plants with their environment Known as “the Plant Doctor” from his boyhood
Systematics Study of the “classification” of plants and fungi with their distribution Hundreds of specimen in herbaria; found several new species of fungi, which bear his name


George Washington Carver's lab

George Washington Carver’s lab. Photo courtesy of the George Washington Carver National Historic Site.

Later in Carver’s life he became a supporter of the emerging sciences during the time period known as the chemurgy (taking “chem” from chemistry; “urgy,” Greek for work) movement. The term was used to describe scientists, agriculturalists, and industrialists who were resolute to put chemistry to work to find non-food uses for agricultural surpluses. Chemurgy is the use of farm products, specifically plant carbohydrates, as feed stocks for the industrial production of plastics, paints gasohol, as well as other products. Today it has evolved into its more commonly known name, Biochemical Engineering.

Carver working in lab

Carver working in lab. Photo courtesy of the George Washington Carver National Historic Site.

“I believe the Great Creator has put oil and ores on this earth to give us a breathing spell…As we exhaust them, we must fall back on our farms, which is God’s true storehouse and can never be exhausted. For we can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow.”
– George Washington Carver


Today’s Impact

“No individual has any right to come into the world and
go out of it without leaving something behind.”
-George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver in field

George Washington Carver in field. Photo courtesy of George Washington National Monument.

While at Tuskegee, George Washington Carver devoted his time researching the status of poor African American farmers. Carver educated farmers about his crop rotation method and encouraged them to plant peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes.

Carver worked with all of these crops in his studies, but we are focusing on the soybean because it is familiar to the Iowa farmer. It has been discovered that soybeans have both edible and industrial uses.

Many of Carver’s discoveries and ideas still have resonance throughout the world. His work has helped advance the American farmer and industry in various ways that are still visible in the world around us.

FACT: Carver did not profit from many of his products. He freely gave his discoveries to mankind.

Soybeans’ Many Uses

Human Consumption Animal Consumption Industrial Uses
Baby Food
Whipped Toppings
Peanut Butter
High Fiber Breads
Beer and Ale
Salad Dressings
Bee Food
Pet Foods
Milk Replacers for young animals
Cattle Feed
Dairy Feeds
Hair Care Products
Alternative Fuels
Paper Coating
Hand Cleaners

Source: American Soybean Association

For more information about soybeans, please visit the American Soybean Association’s website


Bennison, Jim. The George Washington Carver Birthplace District Association. November14-17, 2007

Kremer, Gary. George Washington Carver: In His Own Words. University of Missouri Press: Columbia & London, 1987.
Peterson, Lori. “A Study of African-American Culture in Southwest Missouri in Relation to the George Washington Carver National Monument.” National Park Service Midwest Agricultural Center. Lincoln, Nebraska,1995.

Some quotes taken from:
Special Collections from Iowa State University courtesy of Dr. Harold McNabb
Courtesy of National Park Service- George Washington Carver for His Time and Ours.
All Information not cited comes from the African American Museum and Cultural Center.
A special thank you to Susan Kuecker.

Photo taken from
Photo taken from US Department of Agriculture website

Photo taken from ESL KidStuff website

Picture taken from