With all the bad news lately about peanuts and salmonella, it’s probably time for somebody to point out that George Washington Carver had nothing to do with it! Sure, Carver invented hundreds of products made from this lowly root crop – but history shows he also cleaned his processing equipment! And while we’re at it, there’s no better time than now to reacquaint ourselves with Carver, a man who so revolutionized agriculture a century ago that we’re just now coming to understand.
His entire life was spent in the effort to discover practical uses for alternative crops, and his enormous impact and genius in this endeavor is flowering today in ways that certainly would put a smile on his face.
The billions of dollars now being invested worldwide in biobased industries, ranging from alternative fuels to the production of cosmetics and drugs, are a legacy to this humble scientist born to slave parents in Missouri during the Civil War. When you look back, there’s nobody even in second place to Carver, who was truly unique. Time magazine once dubbed him the “Black Leonardo” for very good reason.
Carver is the indisputable leader in seeking agricultural and sustainable bio-methods to produce non-food items such as dyes, paints, plastics, enzymes – and even gasoline and nitroglycerine – from crops that included soybeans, pecans, hemp, peanuts, sweet potatoes, cowpeas, alfalfa, tomatoes, wild plums, corn, ornamental plants and many others (cannabis, for instance, which is usually not mentioned in his “official” biographies but good enough to get him inducted into the Hippie hall of fame).
Carver’s most surprising financial supporter at the time was none other than Henry Ford, and it was their collaboration that produced an auto prototype in 1941 made entirely from plastics and other materials from renewable sources (mostly hemp and soybean fiber). The body was 30% lighter than steel and almost impervious to denting, even when struck by an axe. In addition, the motor of the vehicle burned “alcohol” (probably ethanol), making it possibly the greenest car ever produced.
But World War II intervened (Pearl Harbor was just a few months away), and it was the petrochemical industry that received all the public and financial support needed to help defeat the Axis. With its large ensuing infrastructure (and the deaths of Carver and Ford) the oil industry literally took over after the war – and heavy gas-guzzlers have dominated highways on our continent ever since.
But Carver probably will have the last laugh.
He’s already had his face imprinted on a U.S. postage stamp and his name emblazoned on the side of a modern nuclear submarine. But what really mattered to him – his science – is now impacting the world with such gravity that even the petrochemical industry titans are climbing aboard.
It could be said that all products now derived through petrochemicals are being (or soon will be) likewise produced from renewable sources with eventual commercial applications. Many of these products – believe it or not – were the subjects of experiments by Carver himself. This astonishing list (in addition to those mentioned above) includes shoe polish, adhesives, axle grease, wood stain, ink, linoleum, bleach, metal polish, pavement, shaving cream, talcum powder, fuel briquettes, paper, hair dressing and synthetic rubber – as well as such food items as meat tenderizer, mayonnaise, instant coffee, after dinner mints, chili sauce and buttermilk.
The saddest part of Carver’s legacy is that he left no formulae, other than his patents and recipes, and he kept no laboratory notebooks that have been found. He considered himself primarily a teacher urging others to find profitable commercial applications from the many possibilities he knew were there. This mission precluded him from ever amassing the fortunes made by many others who followed his lead.
“Chemurgy” was the word associated with these efforts by Carver and others to prepare industrial products from agricultural raw materials. Although rarely used today, the word still better describes the renewed global interest in this area than “green” or “bio-sustainable” or any of the newer words we use.
But whatever word we use, it’s the living legacy of a modest man whose shadow grows larger every year.