Born and died in God’s garden

Nothing is more beautiful than the loveliness of the woods before sunrise, said revolutionary botanist George Washington Carver

Carver at Tuskegee Institute
Carver (front row, center) poses with faculty at the Tuskegee Institute, circa 1902.
(Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

George Washington Carver led an extraordinary life from the time of his infancy to that of his death, but then one would not expect normality from someone often called the "peanut man" and the "plant doctor".

The American botanist and inventor, recognized as one of the most prominent scientists of his time, is known for concocting more than 300 products using peanuts including dyes, plastics, and gasoline.

A brief bio

  • Born into slavery around 1864.
  • Kidnapped by night raiders in the first week of his life and rescued by his master, who raised him as his son.
  • Spent most of his childhood studying plants, his poor health disabling him from working in the fields.
  • Earned a master's degree in agriculture from Iowa State College in 1896, the only school to accept him despite his colour.
  • Headed the agricultural department at Booker T. Washington's all-black Tuskegee Institute for nearly 20 years.
  • Developed a variety of uses for crops such as cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and peanuts – peanuts especially appealed to him as an inexpensive source of protein that did not exhaust the soil as much as cotton did.
  • Believed peanuts could be used to fight polio. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gifted with peanut oil by Carver, told him, "I do use peanut oil from time to time and I am sure that it helps."
  • Considered one of the most famous African-American intellectuals of his time who revolutionized agriculture in the Southern United States.
  • George never married, and died at 78 in 1943 after falling down the stairs at his home. "He could have added fortune to fame," his tombstone reads, "but caring for neither, he found happiness and honour in being helpful to the world."

The unexpected compatibility of science and God

Faith and science are often said to clash, but George was one of the people who tried to marry the two— in fact, he believed them inseparable. He once wrote, "I am not interested in science or anything else that leaves God out of it."

One of his famous quotes reads: "I love to think of Nature as wireless telegraph stations through which God speaks to us every day, every hour, and every moment of our lives."

He found happiness in being helpfulGeorge became a Christian when he was 10 years old, as he describes in a 1931 letter.

"A dear little white boy, one of our neighbors, about my age came by one Saturday morning, and in talking and playing he told me he was going to Sunday school tomorrow morning. He said they sang hymns and prayed. I asked him what prayer was and what they said.

"I do not remember what he said; only remember that as soon as he left I knelt down by the barrel of corn and prayed as best I could. I do not remember what I said. I only recall that I felt so good I prayed several times before I quit.

"That was my simple conversion, and I have tried to keep the faith."

His faith turned out to feed into many aspects of his life. George led a Bible class on Sundays for several of his students at Tuskegee. He regularly portrayed stories by acting them out.

"When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world," he explained.

George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver at work in his laboratory.

His relationship with God was even key to his development of the many peanut products that brought him fame.

"Why, I just took a handful of peanuts and looked at them," he recalled. "'Great Creator,' I said, 'why did you make the peanut? Why?'" From which he describes how he picked the peanut apart and reconstructed it countless ways, under different conditions of temperature and pressure, and marvelled at what he was able to create.

"Why, then, should we who believe in [Jesus] Christ be so surprised at what God can do with a willing man in a laboratory?" he said.

As captivated as he was with nature, George was always more captivated with the One who created it all, in all its perfect complexity.

"How I thank God every day that I can walk and talk with Him," he once wrote.

The peanut man belonged to that rare breed who are at once intelligent, humble, selfless, and seemingly devoid of greed. His child-like appreciation of God's creation was not only inspiring; it appears it was what fuelled his success.

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