Man of science--and of God: George Washington Carver believed that Providence guided his scientific investigations and that those investigations led to a better understanding of God and His handiwork.
God's Little Workshop
The ability to discern the infinite in both the animate and inanimate objects of his very finite world was one of Carver's unique hallmarks. In an age where scientists had begun to view science and religion as mutually exclusive, Carver stood out for his insistence that science provides proof of God's existence. He was fond of paraphrasing the eighth chapter, 32nd verse of the Gospel of John, "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free," as, "And you shall know science and science shall set you free, because science is truth." Or, more simply, "Science is simply the truth about anything."
Carver's chemistry laboratory at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, where he investigated the chemical properties and economic possibilities of peanuts, pecans, clay, soybeans, sweet potatoes and other substances, was filled with vials, bottles, and insect, plant, mushroom and flower collections. He often referred to his lab as "God's little workshop." He did not consider himself a scientific genius--that is, he did not take credit for discovering one or another product. Instead, he considered himself a conduit for divine inspiration and revelation: "[I] ask the Great Creator ... to permit me to speak to Him through the three great Kingdoms of the world, which He has created, viz.--the animal, mineral and vegetable Kingdoms."
Nor was Carver reticent about how he worked. In 1924, he spoke to an audience at a church in New York City, saying "I never have to grope for methods: the method is revealed at the moment I am inspired to create something new." The New York Times, strongly disagreeing with Carver's juxtaposition of science and divine influence, published an editorial claiming that Carver's comments revealed a "complete lack of the scientific spirit."
If "scientific spirit" means excluding God from the investigation of His own creation, then, in that skewed sense, the Times was right. For Carver plainly considered God and science inseparable. He once wrote, "I am not interested in science or any thing else that leaves God out of it." The Times, and many contemporary fellow scientists, simply could not understand a man who made statements such as, "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."
From Tiny Acorns Mighty Oaks Do Grow
Carver traced his simple but profound faith in God to a conversion experience when he was 10 years old, just a few years after the Civil War. The story is best told in Carver's own words.
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. I was eager to know what a Sunday school was. 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 climbed up into the loft, 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 that I prayed several times before I quit.
During that time period, in the mid-1870s, many churches did not allow blacks to attend. So it was years before Carver actually set foot in a house of God. But for him, all of Nature was God's house. Carver had plenty of opportunity to explore nature, growing up on a small farm in Missouri, but he didn't have an easy time of it. Born a slave in approximately 1864, he and his mother were kidnapped in a bushwhacker raid. Carver was rescued (in exchange for a racehorse), but he never saw his mother again. His father died before he was born. From these humble beginnings came one of the most talented researchers this country has ever seen.
Carver left the home farm when he was about 10 years old, in search of an education. Attending school was of paramount importance to him, but there were serious obstacles. Most schools did not allow blacks to attend, and, of course, Carver had no money. However, through a combination of Providence and hard work, Carver not only finished elementary and high school, but in 1890 became the first black student at Simpson College in Iowa. He later obtained a Master's Degree in agriculture from Iowa State University. He excelled in his classes and research, and in 1896 Booker T. Washington asked him to come to Tuskegee Institute to lead Tuskegee's new Department of Agriculture.
It was at Tuskegee that Carver began to leave his indelible mark on history and on Southern agriculture. Carver loved the South, and he hated to see his fellow farmers languishing in poverty in the economic aftermath of the Civil War. He was convinced that new products, and a new attitude, could transform the South from an economic wasteland into an economic powerhouse. At the heart of his plan was the simple phrase, "waste not, want not." Carver recognized that what most people saw as waste products were actually undeveloped natural resources. He once wrote an editorial in the Birmingham News that stated, "'Take care of the waste on the farm and turn it into useful channels' should be the slogan of every farmer."
Carver led the way in showing exactly how to accomplish this feat. He found in myriad common resources--the many varieties of clay available in the South, the medicinal plants that may easily be grown in the southern climate, the cow pea, the soy bean, the velvet bean, the pecan, the sweet potato, and the "humble peanut"--the means to "fill the empty dinner pail, enrich our soils, [and] bring greater wealth and influence to our beautiful South land. which is synonymous to a healthy, happy and contented people."
One of the South's main problems was depleted soils from years of growing intensive crops of cotton and tobacco. Carver pioneered organic fertilizer techniques, encouraging Southern farmers to plant peanuts--a crop high in nitrates that would build the soil back up. Of course, that resulted in farmers having an over-abundance of peanuts, prompting Carver to discover economically rewarding uses for them instead of simply throwing them away. His description of how he came to develop over 300 products from peanuts alone is revealing of Carver's scientific methodology:
Why, I just took a handful of peanuts and looked at them. "Great Creator," I said, "why did you make the peanut? Why?" With such knowledge as I had of chemistry and physics I set to work to take the peanut apart. I separated the water, the fats, the oils, the gums, the resins, sugars, starches, pectoses, pentoses, pentosans, legumen, lysin, the amino and amido acids. There! I had the parts of the peanut all spread out before me. Then I merely went on to try different combinations of those parts, under different conditions of temperature, pressure, and so forth.
With these "parts," Carver discovered more than 300 peanut-related products, including milk, cream, cheese, buttermilk, instant coffee, face powder, ink, dyes, vinegar, soap, wood stains and creosote.
Let Your Light Shine
Unlike many researchers, who become totally absorbed by their work and view interactions with other people as annoying intrusions, Carver spent much of his time evangelizing; he wanted to share his love of science and love of God with as many people as possible. He held evening Bible classes at Tuskegee Institute, after he had finished his teaching, research and administrative duties. He was also a leader in the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), where he told young people how they could come to understand the mysteries of God by studying nature. In 1927, in a letter to YMCA official Jack Boyd, he wrote:
How I thank God every day that I can walk and talk with Him. Just last week I was reminded of His onmipotence, majesty and power through a little specimen of mineral sent me for analysis from Bakersfield, California. I have dissolved it, purified it, made conditions favorable for the formation of crystals, when lo before my very eyes, a beautiful bunch of sea green crystals have formed and alongside of them a bunch of snow white ones. Marvel of marvels, how I wish I had you in God's little workshop for a while, how your soul would be thrilled and lifted up.
Carver also mentored several young men in whom he saw great promise, both in terms of faith, and in the arts and sciences. He referred to these proteges as "my boys" and maintained a regular correspondence with them, offering advice on all manner of issues as they matured. In particular, he urged his "boys" to use Nature as a means to coming to know their Creator, even if they had no laboratory in which to work: "To those who have as yet not learned the secret of true happiness, which is the joy of coming into the closest relationship with the Maker and Preserver of all things: begin now to study the little things in your own door yard, going from the known to the nearest related unknown for indeed each new truth brings one nearer to God."
Throughout his life, Carver stressed that service to fellow citizens was of utmost importance--far more important than money. Early in life he penned the following words: "No individual has any right to come into the world and go out of it without leaving behind him distinct and legitimate reasons for having passed through it." When Carver passed on to his Heavenly reward on January 5, 1943, he had definitely lived up to his own creed.
Carver's scientific discoveries included more than 300 different products derived from the peanut, some 100 from sweet potatoes, about 75 from pecans, and many more from Georgia clay.
Here is just a sampling of items, many of them peanut-based, emanating from the partnership between Carver and his Creator: milk, cream, cheese, buttermilk, instant coffee, face powder, ink, dyes, vinegar, soap, wood stains, creosote, plastics, linoleum, metal polish, synthetic rubber, adhesives, axle grease, bleach, chili sauce, flour, fuel briquettes, insulating board, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, paper, rubbing oils, salve, shampoo, shoe polish, shaving cream, synthetic marble, talcum powder, vanishing cream. worcestershire sauce, highway paving material, and cooking oil.
Although Carver discovered over 500 separate products in his almost 50 years at Tuskegee, he held only three patents. "God gave them to me," stated Carver. "How can I sell them to someone else?"
Inspiration for Invention
Carver read the following poem during his commencement address at Selma University on May 17, 1942, less than a year before his death. The poem, written by Edgar A. Guest, captures Carver's belief in what an individual can accomplish if only he fully utilizes the equipment God has given him.
--Equipment-- Figure it out for yourself, my lad, You've "all that the greatest of men have had, Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes And a brain to use if you would be wise. With this equipment they all began, So start for the top and say, "I can." Look them over, the wise and great They take their food from a common plate, And similar knives and forks they use, With similar laces they tie their shoes. The world considers them brave and smart, But you've all they had when they made their start. You can triumph and come to skill, You can be great if you only will. You're well equipped for what fight you choose, You have legs and arms and a brain to use, And the man who has risen great deeds to do Began his life with no more than you. You are the handicap you must face, You are the one who must choose your place, You must say where you want to go, How much you will study the truth to know. God has equipped you for life, but He Lets you decide what you want to be. Courage must come from the soul within, The man must furnish the will to win. So figure it out for yourself, my lad. You were born with all that the great have had, With your equipment they all began, Get hold of yourself and say: "I can."
Youthful curiosity: The Carver Boyhood Statue, part of the George Washington Carver National Monument, commemorates Carver's formative years on the Carver plantation in Diamond, Missouri. Those boyhood years spent exploring the fields and woods of rural Missouri prepared Carver for his more formal work at Tuskegee Institute, in "God's little workshop."
Common ground: Although Booker T. Washington (left) and Carver didn't always see eye-to-eye on the minutiae of Carver's administrative duties at Tuskegee Institute (above), they did share two abiding passions--the continuing education of their fellow black American citizens, and the bolstering of a stumbling post-Civil War Southern economy.
Jodie Gilmore, a home-schooling mother of two, is a freelance writer.