I have been pulling some of my Amaryllis bulbs out of the basement and get them potted to re-grow, bloom, and brighten my mother’s kitchen. These are amazing plants: start as a baseball-sized bulb; stick it in a 6 inch pot with a little soil; a shoot grows 10- 16 inches, topped with red, white, or pink blooms; plant it in the garden to recover all summer; cut off the leaves and stick it in the basement for the winter to “nap;” and start all over the next spring.
This amazing plant reminds me of my favorite artist-scientist, George Washington Carver. His painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, depicts him as an older man working at one of his favorite hobbies, breeding Amaryllis. At the risk of sounding over dramatic, the arc of Carver’s career was like the Amaryllis – a humble looking origin, opening to a spectacular blossom.
Because there are many excellent books and articles about Carver, as well as two National Park Service sites in Missouri and Alabama memorializing his life and work, I am going to give only a brief sketch – one that may be at odds with the usual hagiographies.
Carver was born a slave in Missouri between 1860 and 1864. After emancipation, the orphan child continued to live in the household of his former owner. From Mrs. Susana Carver he learned cooking, laundry, hand weaving, crochet, and knitting. This was still a time when utilitarian yet beautiful items were made at home from materials at hand – straw, vines, bark, pine needles – as well as thread and yarn. As a small boy, while on an errand to deliver bread to a neighboring household, he saw painted portraits for the first time. Perhaps the story is apocryphal, but later he recalled a sense of awe, “A man made those pictures. He made them with his hands. I want to do that.” A world opened to him of the possibility of representing the beauty of life through art. Using scrap wood, tin, and glass in place of canvas, making simple pigments from bark, roots, and berries, he began painting.
The rural landscape of Missouri was beautiful to Carver, in spite of being a motherless child. “Day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beauties and put them in my little garden.” Even then neighbors recognized he had unusual skill with plants. Art and botany would remained linked for his entire life.
By the time he entered Simpson College in 1890, he had enough self-taught ability in voice, piano and painting that the art instructor, Etta Budd, over ruled the college registrar who had said, “Enroll in the art class?! No colored person should thus waste his time.” Though living in an unused shed, taking in laundry for a living, Carver prospered as a student developing fine skills in painting. He produced a series of botanic still life and landscapes, three of which were selected for exhibition at the 1893 Colombian World Exposition in Chicago.
In 1891 he transferred to Iowa State where Etta Budd’s father was a professor of horticulture. It is not clear why. Some suggest that he was persuaded that an African American could not hope to earn a living as a fine artist. Or, as Carver recounted years later, the Iowa State dean of agriculture asked, “Why not devote a portion of your time to painting?” He replied, “Because with a knowledge of agriculture I can be of greater service to my race.”
As a boy, he gathered flowers from the fields for fun. At Iowa State he started collecting and identifying specimens for the school’s herbarium. Over 300 of his specimens are still in the collection ranging from marsh marigolds to prairie violet, lady slipper orchid to native campanula, poison ivy to nannyberry viburnum, red cedar to American elm. During his years as a graduate student he was appointed to the college faculty. Among his responsibilities was collecting and identifying pathogenic and non-pathogenic fungi. These are now housed in the mycology collection at New York Botanic Garden.
In 1896 he became head of the agriculture department at Tuskegee University Even as he began his tenure at the scientific institution so closely associated with his name, the arts still called to him when he told the school’s finance committee, “I do not to expect to teach for many years, but will quit as soon as I can trust my agricultural work to others and engage [once more] in my brush work, which will be of great honor to our people showing to what we may attain.”
His years at Tuskegee focused on encouraging small farmers to diversify their crop selections, use more sustainable practices, and use on-farm resources to make their own paint, for example. Carver did not invent peanut butter. He was not the first agronomist to recommend peanuts as a crop for the South.
Of all important public figures of the 20th Century, few had their life and memory (mis-?) appropriated as widely as Carver. Whether it was the U.S. Peanut Council, Christian evangelists, or advocates of “separate but equal” second class institutions for African Americans, Carver’s success, humility, and seeming disinterest in political action led white establishment to wrongly point to Carver as an example of a harmless stereotype. George Washington Carver’s commitment to education for African Americans at the university as well as on the farm, and his personal history of unswerving determination to seek education where he wanted, contradicts this image.
Carver continued his teaching, research, painting, and fiber art until his death in 1943. Sadly, he kept little in the way of laboratory notebooks on his research, and most of his paintings were destroyed in a fire at Tuskegee in the late 1940s.
(Images via George Washinton Carver National Monument, NPS)
Kremer, Gary R. (editor). 1987. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia, Missouri.: University of Missouri Press
Barry Mackintosh, “George Washington Carver and the Peanut: New Light on a Much-loved Myth,” American Heritage 28(5): 66–73, 1977 (http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/1977/5/1977_5_66.shtml )
Linda O. Hines, “White mythology and black duality: George W. Carver’s response to racism and the radical Left,” Journal of Negro History 62(2): 134-146, April 1977
Dennis Keeney, “G. W. Carver rooted in sustainable agriculture,” Science with Stewardship Fall 1998 (Aldo Leopold Center, Iowa State University)