One of the reasons the American South has always been vital to the nation’s economy is because it is such a prolific farming area. During the colonial period, the South provided luxuries like tobacco from Virginia and indigo from South Carolina. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries cotton became the South’s primary export. Production led to the rise of prosperous farms and plantations. That prosperity ended with the American Civil War. After four years of war, the South lay in ruins. Some questioned if it would ever recover. It took many years and the efforts of many people for the South to rise out of the ashes. One man in particular had a profound effect on the region. Ironically, he was a former slave who had worked the land all his life. He developed a reputation as a botanist and innovator. Now he turned his talents to restoring the South’s role in agricultural development. His name was George Washington Carver. This is the story of how he developed untold uses for the sweet potato ever before imagined.
From an early age, George Washington Carver was fascinated with agriculture. He was born in January 1860, though some claim the year was 1864, in Diamond, Missouri to a slave woman, but Moses and Susan Carver, his white owners, basically raised him as a son after slave catchers captured his mother. As a young boy, he worked alongside the Carvers growing corn and cabbage. He also found the time to cultivate his own private garden and visited every day to see if his plants were growing. When he was not busy in the fields, he travelled to nearby farms and tended to others’ crops. He seemed to have a special touch, and as a result, friends called him the “Plant Doctor.” He loved digging into the rich, damp Missouri soil and expressed a desire to learn everything he could about plants. To satisfy his hunger, he wandered the fields around the farm and studied the flowers. His examinations led him to wonder if it was possible to “mix” different flowers to create a new one. He decided to gather seeds and plant them together to see if it worked. While this experiment was unsuccessful, George refused to give up on finding a way. It soon became common for him to carry a pouch as he travelled the dusty roads of Missouri, Kansas and Iowa as he pursued his education. Whenever he spied an interesting flower, particularly a bulbous one, he collected seeds and took them home to study. He was so knowledgeable and capable in identifying specimens that when asked by friends or acquaintances he could easily satisfy any request for a particular flower. It was obvious to everyone who met him that he had a future in agricultural science.
Determined to live up to his friends and loved ones’ expectations, George attended the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Ames, Iowa. He arrived in late 1891 and dove into his studies. He thoroughly embraced chemistry and agricultural innovations, such as testing the soil to determine which crops grew best. His main interest, however, was in the field of botany. Remembering his youthful desire to “mix” flowers, he now set to work on crossbreeding. He worked for hours attempting to marry bulbous seeds to create a new color or a new plant form. His work paid off when he successfully modified an amaryllis and documented the results in his thesis paper entitled “Plants as Modified by Man.” The faculty was so impressed by his work that upon his graduation in late 1894 they assigned him to be the college’s assistant botanist. In that role he was responsible for cultivating new types of apples, pears and plums so the fruit could survive in the college greenhouse. His fame spread across the country, and he was soon receiving requests to speak at agricultural meetings. At the same time, however, he began to look south to the colleges that offered new opportunities for African-Americans. He wanted to bring prosperity back to the South.
In April 1896 George received a letter from Booker T. Washington, head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington wanted Carver to come to Macon County, Alabama and chair the school’s agricultural department. George agreed and left Iowa State in early October. Upon his arrival, he was shocked to discover large numbers of whites and blacks alike still insisted on growing cotton. It was as if the Civil War had never happened. He knew there was still a need for cotton, so farmers should not abandon the crop entirely, but they should decrease the amount of acreage allocated to cotton. By 1898 he was fiercely advocating for farmers in and around Tuskegee to diversify their crops. Farmers often asked him what they should cultivate instead. He spent days looking for suitable replacements. The answer finally came after he spied a plant with small root swellings that was a member of the morning-glory family. It was called the sweet potato.
George Carver knew that sweet potatoes had long been grown in the South, mainly as a supplement to farmers’ diets, but he was focused on creating new markets for the crop. At his laboratory inside Tuskegee’s agricultural building, he dissected sweet potatoes and made detailed observations of their characteristics. He found the outside of the plant full of small culls filled with a woody fiber. Obviously, this was not fit for human consumption, so many farmers simply threw it away. George, on the other hand, was adamantly opposed to discarding anything. To his mind, everything had a purpose, even if it was not apparent. He gathered culls and carried them back to his office. Along the way, he stopped to watch the livestock graze in and around the institute. They seemed to feed on anything they could find, even the roots of plants. Perhaps that was the answer. With building excitement, he gathered all the culls, vines and peelings he could find and mixed it with other forms of protein. He then fed the mixture to the livestock. It turned out to be the perfect fodder. He invited local farmers to his garden where he showed them how to make the fodder themselves. The farmers were amazed that such a useful product could result from a seemingly disposable covering. Many of them now followed his example. Pleased with his efforts, Carver turned his attention from the outside of the sweet potato to the inside.
In his studies of the sweet potato, George discovered that “for every hundred pounds, the roots contain sixty-nine pounds of water, one of ash, and thirty of sugar, starch, plant cellulose, fat, etc.” Pushing further, he concluded that, with a little effort, each of these constituent parts had real usefulness. For example, the large percentage of water made sweet potatoes extremely perishable, but it was possible to remove the water, thereby deactivating the enzymes causing perishing. The most effective way to do this was by laying the plants on a hot stove or under the scorching sun. Once dried out, they could be stored or ground up and utilized for various purposes, including coffee. More importantly, however, dehydration left behind sugar and starch that yielded valuable household products. Using his chemical skills, George removed the sweet potato’s skin and grated it before placing the pieces in a cheesecloth bag. He then dipped the bag in water and squeezed it until there was no more milky juice left inside. Once the water had settled, he poured off the top layer to reveal a starchy paste that could be used for laundry, and by boiling the watery liquid he could produce a syrup that was better than that produced by sorghum. Pleased with his discoveries, he immediately set out for the nearby farms where he taught women how to do the same. His success in extracting sugar and starch led George to identify an even more valuable ingredient in the crop’s chemical make-up.
As he examined each sweet potato, he noticed how each had a distinct color. A number of fresh sweet potatoes were yellow and orange while others, particularly rotten sweet potatoes, were a bluish-purple. Since coming south, he had heard stories relating how Native Americans had used sweet potatoes to make dyes for their clothing. At the same time, he knew the United States was dependent on German-produced dyes. Perhaps new sources would enable the country to free itself from that dependence. He immediately set to work. Using his chemistry skills, he extracted a water-soluble solution he then treated with citric acid to produce the colors he wanted. Some colors were made by mixing the pigments with natural ingredients, such as combining blue dye with Alabama’s yellow clay to produce a soft green color. Ultimately, he created dyes ranging from bright yellow to dark black. When George introduced these products, there were celebrations across the country. Farmers requested detailed instructions on how to create these products, so George prepared and distributed printed bulletins detailing his methods. With demand for sweet potatoes now on the rise, George Carver turned his attention to other useful crops, most notably peanuts, but he never lost his fascination with the sweet potato.
For the rest of his life, George Washington Carver continued to improve the commercial value of sweet potatoes. They were not only valuable as food themselves, but they could be used to create whole new meals. During World War I, he developed, from a Puerto Rican sweet potato, both an egg yolk and tapioca, a new ginger-flavored breakfast food, but his greatest success came when he used the sweet potato’s starch content as a new kind of flour. He found that mixing it with wheat flour produced bread just as good as that made solely from wheat flour. The new flour was greatly appreciated by the U.S. government since it would permit Americans to cut down on the amount of wheat flour they used. He even appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee in January 1921 to show off the syrup he made from sweet potatoes and declared he had found a total of 118 uses for the plant, including glue, shoe polish, rubber and dextrin for stamps. By 1935 demand was so great that 62 million bushels were being grown across the South. When George Washington Carver died in January 1943, he could take comfort in the fact that his life’s work had helped millions of people and had restored agricultural prosperity to the American South.
Today, George Washington Carver is primarily remembered for his work with the peanut. In all he found over three hundred uses for the plant — more than double those resulting from sweet potatoes. But it all started with the lowly sweet potato. Without his experiments on them, it is possible he would never have thought to try peanuts. The vegetable is so much than just a tasty Thanksgiving treat. It is one of the most important crops to ever come out of the South. And none of it would have been possible without George Washington Carver — the Plant Doctor.