George Washington Carver was an African-American scientist who devoted his life to improving the diets and living conditions of people in the South. Much of the land had been damaged by the growing of cotton, which depleted the soil. He helped change the mix of crops grown in the South by promoting the cultivation of soybeans and peanuts, which fix nitrogen and improve soil.
Mr. Carver became a celebrity in the 1920s after testifying before Congress to protect American peanut farmers from competition by foreign growers. Americans learned that Carver was not an ordinary scientist: he turned down offers of high-paying jobs to spend his career at Tuskegee Institute. He filed for few patents, since he gave away most of his discoveries. And his scientific methods appeared to belong to the eighteenth century, not the twentieth.
Carver, an applied chemist who had earned a Masters degree in botany at Iowa State University, had a mystical approach to research. He was a devout Christian. Mr. Carver told a group of church women, “God is going to reveal to us things he never revealed before if we put our hands in his. No books ever go in my laboratory. The thing I am to do and the way of doing it are revealed to me. I never have to grope for methods. The method is revealed to me the moment I am inspired to create something new. Without God to draw aside the curtain I would be helpless.”
Men who saw themselves as realists considered the Alabama peanut researcher to be something of an oddity. George Washington Carver’s work in his small laboratory at Tuskegee Institute appeared old-fashioned and impractical compared to educational and industrial research departments employing dozens, even hundreds, of scientists. To many people, his generosity and his trust in a supernatural being placed him well outside the mainstream of modern science. But Mr. Carver’s speeches, the agricultural bulletins he wrote and his research helped make the peanut and soybean essential parts of crop rotation in the southern states. Many of his discoveries were intended to help cash-strapped farmers make products at home from crops they raised instead of buying commercial products. His efforts were good for people and good for the environment. And his work touches the lives of everyone: for example, this publication, along with many others, is printed using soybean-based ink that Carver was a pioneer in creating.
In our country which often celebrates big business, big money and high government spending, can Mr. Carver’s success tell us anything about science? Perhaps so. He said, “My attitude toward life was also my attitude toward science. Jesus said one must be born again, must become as a little child. He must let no laziness, no fear, no stubbornness keep him from his duty.” Little children are imaginative. Cynicism and an obsession with money tend to stifle the inner child and the imagination, not to mention inspiration. But once a student of science gains technical competence, his or her powers of imagination are invaluable in the search for meaningful discoveries. George Washington Carver would likely agree with Albert Einstein who said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. . . . Imagination encircles the world.”

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