Choosing Science: Stories of Perseverance, Humanity, and Success

Dr. George Washington Carver or how to have God as your lab assistant

January 30, 2022 Season 1 Episode 3
Choosing Science: Stories of Perseverance, Humanity, and Success
Dr. George Washington Carver or how to have God as your lab assistant
Show Notes Transcript

Born just as slavery was abolished, Dr. George Washington Carver has managed to change the agricultural landscape of America through pure empiricism and perseverance and was one of the first African-American  pioneers and inventors who rose all by himself to popularity and international recognition. 
Take a listen to te biography of a man that has touched many lives only by being his humble but eccentric self and through his geniune admiration of all God's creation.  A man who was driven by pure curiosity and gratitude, who approched research as a way of being. Maybe his life will inspire you to look at every day as an oportunity to be in awe (of how beautiful nature is, of course, you little cynic).   #LivesToRemember


A few resources
1.       Biography “The Man who talked with the flowers”  by Glenn Clark

2.       https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Washington-Carver

3.       https://blackiowa.org/?s=carver

4.       https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/famous-inventors/george-washington-carvers-inventions.htm


Email: choosingscience@gmail.com

Twitter: @LivesToRemember

Survey of your opinion on the podcast: Survey: https://de.surveymonkey.com/r/LZDNHDW 

The person we’ll be discussing today is someone that you might have heard of, especially if you are from the USA. However, I have never heard of him before and making an episode on him was fascinating and challenging. Fascinating because he is such a unique character and scientist, conducting his research with pure empiricism, but also challenging, due to his inquisitive method that doesn’t resemble anything I have been taught and seen. It was a good opportunity of reflection for me, and maybe it’ll be for you too. 

The life of George Washington Carver, a famous botanist, has a murky beginning. Son of two slaves, he was born in Missouri one year before slavery was abolished. The exact date is uncertain; some sources claim it was either June or January. How are these the only options, I cannot say as they are not even remotely close. I tried to write both names completely wasted and I concluded that only a blind person could tell them apart on paper. And yes, I did the experiment in triplicate, I know what I am doing.

Now, tragically George never got to meet either of his parents, as his dad wasn’t involved from the beginning as he died before George’s birth, and his mum got abducted and was never see again. Mary carver, his mum, was purchased at 13 yo by Moses Carver to work on his plantation nine years before George’s birth. The way the story goes is that Mary was kidnapped together with baby George and his older sister by one of the bands of slave raiders that roamed Missouri during the Civil War era and were sold in Kentucky. Moses Carver gave the task of retrieving them to one of his neighbours, who was successful in only bringing back George. Now virtually orphans, George and his brother, James, who somehow dodged the whole kidnapping situation, were raised by Moses and his wife, Susan. This was highly unusual for a white couple to do, but the pair was against slavery and also yearned to raise kids, and as he couldn’t have some of their own they adopted the two boys. Because George was so small when he became their son, the pair were the ones that chose his name. While brainstorming, they decided to base the choice on one of the boy’s most distinctive characteristics, that being his stroiking honesty. And so, he got the name George Washington, the boy “who would never tell a lie”.

James helped Moses in the fields, while George stayed home with Susan, because of his frail constitution. But this opened a great door for George. While learning household tricks, he also was allowed to roam the plantation freely and engage his natural curiosity with the world outside. He learned how to prepare different solutions for the house, but also how to take care of the garden or crops. During this time, he started experimenting with different growth conditions for plants, as well as pesticides and fungicides. Through trial and error, he became so good that he was known as the “plant doctor” and neighbours will sometimes bring him ailing plants to nurse them back to health. 

He gradually discovered his innate aptitude for the arts, becoming a church singer, as well as a talented botanical illustrator. At around ten years old he discovered books and started to crave knowledge and formal education. Because his adoptive parents couldn’t afford sending him to school he had to work small jobs for a year while he was attending school in a nearby village. Due to his avid curiosity, he pretty much learnt everything that school had to offer within a year and so he hitchhiked to Kansas for greener pastures. There he worked as cook, dishwasher, laundryman and housekeeper while attending highschool and got his diploma after 7 years. Because of the entranched racism in the south, he applied at a university in the north which granted him a scholarship. And the he lived happily ever after. Just kidding, the north was just as racist and when he arrived there and realised he was “colored”, they denied his attendance. He fortunately got accepted into the Simpson College, from which he transferred to Iowa State College where he got his Bachelors. After that he got his Masters at the same college. After a few years and a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Booker Washington (another former slave that raised himself to the position of dr. and scientist), he ended up at the Tuskegee University as head of the agricultural department where he remained for the rest of his career.  But now the problem was that the lab was more under equipped as a college student’s pantry. So he put together the necessary apparatus from whatever he could find. Hopefully the modern funding bodies won’t hear about this scenario, I am pretty sure I would be a disaster at making my own beakers.

But for Dr Carver, the land and nature was the best teaching environment. He recognised before anybody that monocrop method used in the south was extremely detrimental to the health of the soil. Crop quality decreased more and more annually, yet farmers were dead set on continuing this practice, as the main monocrop was cotton, a very sought after resource. As preaching has never and will probably never be a cure for stubbornness, Dr. Carver decided to lead by example. He bought the worst plot of land in Alabama and during the years he experimented different ways of crop alternation and soil treatments. Thanks to his remarkable success he was put in the position to find new uses of the crops he got, as he got way too much after a certain point. I wish that was my complaint in life too. 

One of the most efficient ways he found to regenerate the exhausted soil was to plant peanuts and soybean. This is because these plants are part of the legume family which are capable of restoring the nitrogen levels in the soil. And now a break for a little botany. I found it really interesting how this process actually occurs. The plants form a symbiotic relationship with a type of bacteria called rhizobacteria, which is capable of converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonium nitrogen and stores it like that. And that is a big deal, as most garden plants need to absorb it in order to thrive. In return, the plant supplies the bacteria with carbohydrates, which gives them energy to function. The bacteria reside in the plant’s roots where they form little pockets full of ammonium nitrogen. Ok, class over.

As I mentioned before, this new method yielded a lot of crops, like sweet potatoes and peanuts, that weren’t really sought after. Consequently, Dr. Carver solved this issue in the lab and I feel that he went a bit overboard. I am saying that because he designed 300 derivatives from peanuts (such as milk, flour, ink, dyes, plastics, wood stains, soap, linoleum, medicinal oils, and cosmetics—and 118 from sweet potatoes, including flour, vinegar, molasses, ink, a synthetic rubber, and postage stamp glue. Some of them were found to be unoriginal or impractical, but the mere fact that he advocated for the peanut’s great potential was a great push for the its vast popularisation and quite literally changed the landscape for the better. I have bad news however. He did not come up with the peanut butter, which is mind blowing. I guess that nobody is perfect.

But to make up for this devastating oversight, he pretty much single-handedly saved agriculture in the south, so I guess the score is even. Jokes aside, he actually did that. The farmers were finally convinced and adopted his methods. In 50 years, the peanut went from zero to hero, and the derivatives invented by doctor Carver became increasingly popular and liberated the South from its economic dependence on cotton. Also, fun fact, during WWII he managed to replace all dyes imported from Europe and created around 500 shades in total.

On top of that, he recognised the limited lifespan of petroleum and its derivatives, this being one of the reasons why he was so invested in bioengineering. Because of his contribution in this field he was dubbed the father of chemurgy (a weird mashup between chemistry and metallurgy, what’s known today as bioengineering). He once said on this subject "I believe the Great Creator has put oil and ores on this earth to give us a breathing spell," "As we exhaust them, we must fall back on our farms, which is God's true storehouse and can never be exhausted. For we can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow". 

 

I would really like to emphasise his accomplishments. At first I thought that I should mention all the honours, medals, distinctions, but then I came across some mind-blowing facts that attest his success. I’ll start with the less “is this real or the internet is trolling again”. In his later career stage, he got an invitation from Thomas Edison to come and work for him for a salary of $100,000 a year, which in today’s money would be one million and a half to two million. Not exactly sure on the sum, as I didn’t find the actual year, but definitely in the millions. I thought at first that the person who wrote the article on him on Encyclopaedia Britannica fell on the keyboard or maybe their cat jumped on it, which would explain the number of zeroes, but it’s Edison we’re talking about so it’s plausible. But because Dr Carver has never been money hungry, he turned down the offer.

And yes, that was the less surprising little fact I found. The other one involves a man known for his mustache, delusional self-importance and murderous paranoia. You have one guess. Yes, Stalin. This dude had the audacity to ask for council on agricultural matter from Dr. Carver. To probably nobody’s surprise (except Stalin’s), Carver turned the offering down. I am almost admiring the nerve Stalin had. Almost.

What I found intriguing however is that because of his methods and genuine way of being, he wasn’t really regarded as a true scientist by the community. He was very soft spoken, humble and always praising God, yet eccentric in mannerisms and dress, always with a fresh flower on his vest. This helped him to get under a lot of white people’s skin, who mostly showed a sort of adulation albeit patronising sometimes. This popularity with the white folks attracted criticism from the black community, as they saw this as remnants of subservience of a former slave. But from what I read in the resources I found, he generally seemed completely uninterested in the politics and race wars. He actively helped the black community, but with the same energy he dedicated his life and work to serve humanity at large. And this takes me to the part that really intrigued me about him. I have never read, heard of or met a scientist so deeply spiritual and in such awe for life. Granted, I don’t know many people or have many connections in general, my Linkedin profile being the proof of that, but still. And I say religious, because the way he regarded his connection with God was in a very direct manner. He probably went to church, but usually he approached his relationship with divinity in a personal and direct fashion. He genuinely admired the beauty of the sunset and listened carefully what everything around him had to tell him. He had a child-like curiosity, asking the little peanut what secrets it had to reveal before he started to work in his lab. He listened to soil and asked how he can cure it. After I read a biography by the title The man who talks with the flowers written by one of his closest friends, Glenn Clark, () I’ve noticed this pattern that preceded his discoveries of “talking with God” while wondering through nature or just sitting in the lab. Now, I am not the most spiritual person in existence, (shocking, I know), but I couldn’t help but think this approach enabled to tap into his genius while remaining humble. Nowadays logic and reason are served as the only way to pursue authentic and successful scientific research, but what if this leaves the path a bit too dry? And no, I am not suggesting ignoring reality, but embracing the proverbial gut feeling. I really do believe that people possess a powerful intuition, especially the ones with increased mental capacity and abilities.  But even for normal folks like us I still think is available. Experiencing an unstoppable drive fuelled by genuine curiosity and wonder it’s one of the best highs a mind can get on. And also the best cure for the soul crushing mundanity this life sometimes serves you. 

Now I’ll give you an example of what his method was and for that I’ll read an excerpt from the aforementioned biography. This was during a conference on Clays. 

He began by telling how one day he took a walk out in the hills. He recalled the words, “Lift up thine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh thy help.” He investigated closer and discovered beautiful permanent dyes and colors in the Alabama hills. First he showed an exhibit of wood stains in many shades and fine coloring. Then he showed an array of toilet powders from every conceivable shade from the darkest brunette to the lightest blond. And then he revealed a rare shade of blue, deep and rich, particularly striking. “It is the result,” he said, “of some chemical gymnastics.” 

“This blue pigment has aroused widespread interest among scientists, artists and Egyptologists. It has excited the wonder of scientists because of the extraor- dinary process by which it has been developed. Artists delight in it because of its reach. And Egyptologists have manifested special interest in it because they believe it represents the rediscovery of a lost process of making permanent colors, em- ployed by the ancient Egyptians and marveled at by Egyptologists ever since. Such a color was found in the tomb of King Tut-Ankh-Amen when it was opened a few years ago, and it was still just as bright and fresh as if it had been newly applied. The centuries have taken nothing from its beauty.” When asked whether this color and other colors discovered by him would re- main permanent, he replied, “Why should they not be permanent? The clays have been lying there in the hills for centuries with color unchanged. There is no reason why they should change now.” Which sounds reasonable enough, I think we would all agree.

 

So what is the conclusion of this episode? Memorise verses of the bible and you might also discover something that would make anthropologist envious. But seriously, I think in this case is that everybody needs an outside inspiration source to shine a light on our innate ability to see potential in seemingly mundane things. Call it God, nature, stubbornness to stay alive, it doesn’t matter. Curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge are one of the things that give life meaning. And while I know it is increasingly difficult in our modern age when most of us don’t have time or are too tired to observe and ask, it is worth cultivating in our tired minds. As corny as it sounds, smell the roses like Dr Carver did and listen to what they want to tell you. It might not make you a super genius inventor, but it’ll definitely get you a better understanding of your humanity and I bet it’ll make this experience we call life more enjoyable. 

I will finish with two things. One is a quote said by a visitor of Dr. Carver, which I feel that it reflects something most people would like to achieve that is being remembered in life and death, our memory and influence lingering on even after we are gone. Dr Carver said: “One day a man came to see me, and we talked about my work. When he was ready to leave, he said, ‘Dr. Carver, I feel that you will never leave this laboratory. Though your body may depart, your spirit will always be here, and when your assistant takes a test tube and pours acid into it, your hand will be under his hand, supporting it.’ I think that is very beautiful and I think it may be true.”  

I usually don’t condone supernatural activity and ghost hunting, but if that leads to the next great discovery, who am I to judge? Aside my cynicism, this is a noble thing to aspire to.

 

And second and final, I will read out Dr Carver’s favourite poem and I’ll hope it’ll give you a bit of food for thought. It goes like this:

 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 from 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 arms and legs 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.”