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DALY: George Washington Carver's contributions often overlooked

One of the greatest contributors to modern agriculture was George Washington Carver. Although he was born into slavery and suffered from multiple illnesses as a child, he did not let this stop his mind from being creative.

He was unable to labor in the fields, but he took an interest in plants and the improvement of farming methods at a young age. Due to his extensive knowledge and understanding of plants, the people of the farming community referred to him as "the plant doctor." He attended Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), where he earned both an undergraduate and an advanced degree in agricultural science. After finishing his education, he went to work for Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., as a scientist and went on to become the school's Director of Agriculture.

Carver observed that growing cotton and tobacco over long periods of time depleted the soil of important nutrients in addition to causing extensive soil erosion. He was an early advocate of crop rotation, and he also encouraged alternating the soil-depleting cotton crops with ones that improved soil fertility, such as peanuts, peas and soybeans. Carver conducted a multitude of experiments using peanuts, sweet potatoes and pecans, and from these experiments he developed new products. Additionally, Carver created many dyes and paints from the discarded corn stalks and from the clays of the Alabama soil; some of these paints he used for his artwork.

Carver published many writings on improved cultivation techniques and also recipes for nutritious meals. In the early 1900s, he designed a mobile demonstration laboratory on wheels, known as "The Jessup Wagon." He used this wagon to travel and educate farmers on site. Throughout his life he received many awards and honors.

George Washington Carver died in 1943. His most important legacy was his role in helping the American south transition from a farming system, based mostly on the monoculture crop of cotton, to the cultivation of a variety of profitable crops. However, Carver did not patent or profit from the farming methods or the products he developed, and was quoted as saying "God gave them to me, how can I sell them to someone else?"

A few years before his passing, he donated his life's savings to the Carver Research Foundation for agricultural research at Tuskegee University. He has been honored by having an agricultural experiment station named after him at Tuskegee University. The following words are written on his gravestone: "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world."

Timothy Daly, MS, is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Agent with the Gwinnett County Cooperative Extension. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@gwinnettcounty.com.