Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Thoughts on George Washington Carver

"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in."
--George Washington Carver (1864? - 1943)

Traditionally, February has been known as Black History Month. This got me thinking about my favorite African-American scientist, George Washington Carver, and his rise from slavery to esteemed professor and agricultural researcher.

I'm not sure why it influenced me so much to read a profile about Carver in the late 1970's. I'll be honest, back then I didn't think much about science outside of school. Maybe it was because President Carter was in office and their names were so similar and they both were peanut farmers.

But I remember thinking that it was really cool that Carver thought of so many different things to do with peanuts. In the truest definition of a scientist -- he saw the world in a different way. Dr. Carver seemed determined to squeeze every possible type of peanut product out of this simple crop. Along with numerous foodstuffs (like peanut butter!), he found the peanut could be used to make paper (from the skin and vines), wall boards (from the hulls), axle grease, laundry soap, laxatives, and hundreds of other products. In addition to his work with peanuts, Carver taught crop rotation and developed new uses for soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. As a result, cotton farmers devastated by the boll weevil were able to find new crops to replace cotton in the American south.

I like that Carver patented very few of his inventions, instead making them available to help everyone. He could have become discouraged early in his career -- he faced discrimination while trying to pursue his education -- but he didn't. He kept on trying. Both humble and persistent, he was a man on a mission. Carver turned down jobs for higher pay so that he could continue his agricultural work and help the southern farmer.

In these bleak economic times, I thought this quote of his especially relevant:
"Learn to do common things uncommonly well; we must always keep in mind that anything that helps fill the dinner pail is valuable." George Washington Carver

P.S. You can print out a cool Coloring and Activity Book about Carver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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